Even though I’m off to Japan at the beginning of September, which will prove to be an epic and unforgettable experience, I have to deal with news about events, activities, and orgies that I’m missing out on while across the Pacific. Brings a tear to my eye, really (especially those orgies). To be frank, though, I really am bummed about having to skip out on a specific concert to be performed on BU campus in late September: Girl Talk.
Girl Talk, or Gregg Gillis, the engineer-turned-DJ (though he’d rather call himself an artist), remixes clips from a variety of popular songs to create
new songs clips of songs glued together by a common BPM. Honestly, it’s nothing special, but there’s something appealingly freakish about it that I’ll keep his MySpace page on loop for a good hour at work. It’s like the nineties joined up with the 00s and drove a car through the panoramic window of my storefront. It’s music improbable to dance to yet so possible that I find myself dancing anyway. You can actually buy Girl Talk’s latest album, “Feed the Animals”, for any price.
Well, Girl Talk’s been all the… talk… on the Students for Free Culture national mailing list for the past week or so. The issue: Girl Talk’s defense of fair use to create his music without having to deal with musical industry copyrights. Tech Dirt explains Girl Talk’s theory: Girl Talk uses a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license for Feed the Animals, even though the songs on the album were made by using hundreds samples from other artists. Gillis claims his songs are fair use on the basis of being transformative and because the clips used are very short. TechDirt mumbles about the definition of transformative, but Girl Talk is furthering the production of a newly popular, cultural, musical genre and form: remix, also known as the mash-up. The New York Times uses the term collage, which I find fitting.
The problem I have with Girl Talk with regards to copyright license: the copy.
In one interview, Gillis explains the effort required to put together one of his CDs, Night Ripper.
Pitchfork: The samples are very specific– when you listen to a song for the first time do you know which lines you want to pick out immediately?
GG: Sometimes. Anyone can make a mashup in 30 seconds but that record took me– outside of collecting the samples– at least a year of putting everything together. It’s always just trial-and-error, I get all the loops and mix-and-match them on my computer.”
Girl Talk mixes hundreds of fragments of songs together — a process which has been thoroughly documented on Wikipedia, such as on Feed the Animal‘s page. The wonderful power of the Internet has even provided the initial play times of every sample included in each track. This last point is the key to unlocking the copy. Well, no, I would consider it to be more the tumblers of the lock.
The ultimate key that moves those tumblers is the creative environment, specifically software. Special thanks to Tim Hwang for helping me realize this (look out for future related awesomeness on his part). The improved availability of software and ever-lowered ability requisite of the user to operate said software will complicate copyright beyond anything we’ve seen yet.
To explain my idea, I’ll ask a simple question: What if you produced an exact copy of a song, but without actually copying and pasting the original music?
By this I mean creating a cover of a song, entirely self-produced, but one that exactly (read: PERFECTLY) matches the source material. Of course, such a dream is impossible: no garage band will ever replicate the exact twang of a Hendrix guitar or a flawless warble akin to that of Johnny Cash. When we use our own instruments, musical covers will remain covers, ever removed from the classic prototype that retains the value. And according to copyright law, royalties are due to the original musician if you decide to market a cover song.
However, what if you’re provided with the materials, so that you avoid having to reproduce anything? Here’s where the trouble lies.
Girl Talk licenses his latest work with a Creative Commons license that prohibits others from garnering money from the retail of his music. I cannot download his CD and sell it to another person. However, assuming that Girl Talk’s claim to fair use upholds, then I also may use fair use to put any clips of music together to create another song. If I decide to choose the same original songs as Girl Talk to create the same tracks on his CD, then I have not copied or reproduced his work as long as I have personally toiled to put together each song.
Props to the new genre of remix, because musical recognition is simpler than ever before. The recirculation of cultural works (read here: music) into the mainstream (or even tributaries of popoular culture) certainly seems beneficial to a generation branded as “unable to create any new meaning.” Girl Talk mirrors the Internet: he’s making ideas available. If a young kid of this decade listens to Feed the Animals, he’s likely to miss most of the references to the popular songs of an older generation. However, Girl Talk refreshes the material, while at the same time refreshing the genre. Yet even if Gillis were not indirectly advertising music from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, technology has kept up with the pace. A program called Listen on the iPhone will analyze a piece of music and identify the name of the song, its composer, and the track’s album.
With new technologies, composition is also easier than it ever once was. Given the availability of open source software (eg. audio programs like Audacity) and the ease-of-use provided by these new software, it does not take much effort to (re)create Girl Talk’s music while avoiding literally copying and pasting it. In fact, I could probably spend much less time producing my own songs compared to Girl Talk’s “at least a year,” since I have a storyboard for each song on Wikipedia, samples available on Pandora, free editing software available online, and the optimum cheat sheet, Girl Talk’s compilation. If Gillis had decided to sell his CD for the ’90s average price of $12, an unemployed, middle-school-based teenager could spend an afternoon recreating the music, possibly even extending the production to suit his own needs.
This post has been about copyright, but instantly the issue has evolved into a debate over intellectual property. Does Girl Talk have legal rights to protect his idea to mash together a bunch of previously-released songs (down to each second that he switches to a new sample on each individual track)? Or do we have to start from the beginning by ruling Girl Talk’s appropriation of songs as illegal?
Compared to composing an academic essay, obviously we cannot copy the words of another person and claim it as our own. The MLA would kick our ass (I mean, that’s why we’ve been writing citations pages, right? because we’re afraid?). However, I can write a book while quoting other people and still sell my book without paying royalties. If we read music like words, Girl Talk has already plagiarized, although he has created a new idea out of it. So, by creating my own (identical, but personal) version of Girl Talk’s music, I am plagiarizing from the artists’ original songs from which I take the samples, but am I also plagiarizing Gregg Gillis?
Or, to spin these questions another way: what if an eight-year old kid did all of this? Well, not entirely similar, but we’ve already seen some teeth bared.