Tutorial: Captioning YouTube Videos (Full Document)


  1. Introduction
  2. Two approaches to captioning
  3. Approach #1
    1. Request captioning by the owner
    2. Caption request letter template
    3. Next steps
  4. Approach #2
    1. The do-it-yourself approach
    2. Next Steps
  5. Copyright resources
  6. Feedback


YouTube logo

The news about YouTube video captioning is both good and bad.

First the good news: In the fall of 2009 YouTube introduced a powerful and easy-to-use system for captioning videos hosted on its website. It is now a simple matter for a video owner to upload a transcript and let YouTube synchronize the text with the video. Although the video must still be transcribed manually, YouTube has automated the task of breaking the text into caption-sized chunks and adding time code. And the day may not be far off when even the transcription will be automated: YouTube is already beta-testing a “Transcribe Audio” feature which, although not yet reliable, is a promising technology.

So, what is the bad news? Despite the availability of these cutting edge tools, most YouTube content remains uncaptioned.

Two approaches to captioning

There are fundamentally two approaches to getting a YouTube video captioned. You can 1) request captioning by the video owner, or 2) caption the video yourself. We recommend the first approach because it is unambiguously legal. The second approach runs the risk of copyright infringement and violation of YouTube’s terms of use, which expressly forbid unauthorized download of content from its service.

Given the questionable legality of the do-it-yourself approach, you might wonder why it is included in this tutorial. The fact is that YouTube videos are routinely downloaded and edited by teachers, journalists, comedians and artists under the “fair use” exemption of the copyright law. Fair use allows educators and artists to use portions of copyrighted works in the course of their professional duties (see Copyright Resources below for more information).

The concept map below summarizes the decisions and steps required to caption YouTube videos:

Figure 1

Figure 1:  Captioning videos on YouTube

Assuming the YouTube video is not already captioned, there are two captioning approaches: request captioning by the owner or caption the video yourself.

Approach #1

Request captioning by the owner

What can you do if you want to use an uncaptioned YouTube video in your course? If you do not own the video, you should contact the owner and ask that s/he do one of the following:

  1. Add captions using YouTube’s captioning tools. A transcript of the video will need to be created, and it may fall to you to do this work (see the tutorial, Creating a Video Transcript). Once the transcript is complete, the owner will upload it to YouTube, where it will be automatically converted to captions. (See YouTube’s Adding and Editing Captions/Subtitles.)
  2. Change the license type from “Standard YouTube License” to “Creative Commons Attribution License.” Once the Creative Commons license has been applied, a “Remix” button will appear below the video. The Remix option allows you to modify the video (including adding captions) and save a copy of it to your own YouTube video library. (See Creative Commons Licensing & YouTube Videos for more information.) Once again, the video will need to be transcribed.

How can you contact the video owner?

  1. First, you must have a YouTube or Gmail account.
  2. Click on the user ID below the video title, as shown below. This link will take you to the author’s YouTube page or “channel.”
    Figure 2

    Figure 2:  Locate the link to the video owner

  3. Locate the “Send Message” link. Because YouTube channels are customizable, the appearance and location of this link may vary. A few examples are shown below:
    Figure 3

    Figure 3:  Send Message link (3 examples)

    It's easy to send a message to the owner of a YouTube video, provided you have a Gmail or YouTube account.

  4. Click the Send Message link and send the owner a request to caption the video.

Caption request letter template

You may find the following template helpful when initiating communication with the owner of a YouTube video:

To whom it may concern,

My name is [Name] and I’m an instructor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at Colorado State University. I would like you show your video, [video title], to the class I teach, but it would first need to be captioned. Many students like to read along with the captions, and students who are deaf or have hearing impairments require captions to understand the content.

If you are willing to work with me on this, there are a couple of ways we can proceed. First, if you already have a transcript of the video, you can upload it as a text file and YouTube will synchronize it with the video to create captions automatically. If you do not have a transcript, I can assist you in creating one. A third option would be for you to change the copyright license in YouTube from “Standard YouTube License” to “Creative Commons Attribution License.” The Creative Commons license allows others to reuse portions of your video, and this would allow us to add the captions to a copy of your work.

Your help will be greatly appreciated. This video can be an important learning tool for my students, but it must to be accessible to all of them. Please let me know your response and any questions or concerns you might have.

Thank you for your consideration.


Next steps

With any luck, the owner will agree to caption the video or change the license so that you can caption it yourself using YouTube’s caption tools. Once captioning is complete, the final step is to provide students with the link to the captioned video.

Everyone knows that to link to a YouTube video you need the URL. But many people don’t realize that you can link to any point in the video, not just the beginning. For example, to start playback 10 minutes and 21 seconds into the video, simply append #t=10m21s to the end of the URL. For example:

Standard URL:


URL with starting time:


URL “suffixes” such as starting time are called “parameters.” More information about YouTube parameters can be found on their website.

Approach #2

The do-it-yourself approach

Copyright issues aside, the procedure for downloading a YouTube video is not complicated. In fact, there are many software applications and browser add-ons that make it simple. One such tool is the Easy YouTube Video Downloader, which is a free add-on for the Firefox browser.

Once Easy YouTube Video Downloader is installed, a “Download” button appears below each YouTube video. The button expands when you click on it to show all of the media formats and sizes available for download:

Figure 4

Figure 4:  Downloading a YouTube video

The Easy YouTube Video Downloader add-on to Firefox adds a download button below each video. The video can be downloaded in various sizes and formats. The preferred format is MP4 at the largest size available.

When available from the menu, you should select the MP4 file format, along with the largest size (highest quality). When MP4 is not available, choose the FLV format. FLV videos must be converted to the MP4 format for captioning in Camtasia Studio (see Converting Video Files to MP4).

Take note of the location where the video is saved. To see where the Firefox browser is saving downloaded files, go to Tools > Options and click on the General button at the top of the window. That location will be displayed mid-way down the page, under Downloads:

Figure 5

Figure 5:  Locating download videos in Firefox

If you don't know where the Firefox browser is saving downloaded files, open the Options dialog box. Click on the General settings icon and look for the download location, highlighted above.

Next steps

Once you have downloaded the video from YouTube, you are ready to add captions. See Converting Video Files to MP4 and Adding Captions in Camtasia Studio for further instructions.

Copyright resources

U.S. Copyright Office - Fair Use
Guidelines and general information about the ‘fair use’ exemptions of copyright law.
The Complete Guide To Fair Use & YouTube
Information specifically about the use of YouTube video content.

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