Why The Music Industry Isn’t Suing Mashup Star ‘Girl Talk’

DJ Greg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk

DJ Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, is arguably the most famous “mash up” musician around, filling up sizable venues with his high-energy live performances. While plenty of musicians sample from other artists, they also pay those artists a license fee-something Gillis doesn’t do. For that reason, the New York Times (NYSE: NYT) has called him a “lawsuit waiting to happen.” Well, today, Gillis came out with his 5th album, “All Day“-available as a “pay-what-you-want” online download-and we’re still waiting for the lawsuit.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote today that Gillis’ new album was “provoking copyright owners for the fifth time.” The fifth time? Shouldn’t the third or fourth provocation have been enough to set off a supposedly litigious industry?

Gillis has certainly done his best to incite the labels. He has published all of his albums on a record label called “Illegal Art.” He’s spoken out in favor of fair use. He was highlighted in Remix, the last book written by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, probably the most famous advocate of copyright reform. And his fans scrupulously detailed all 372 pieces of copyrighted music he used on Wikipedia just hours after he released his album. (Imagine the thousands of dollars a law firm could have billed for doing this research!)

So why hasn’t Gillis been hauled in front of a judge by the music industry? Probably because he’s the most unappealing defendant imaginable. Gillis would be a ready-made hero for copyright reformers; if he were sued, he’d have some of the best copyright lawyers in the country knocking on his door asking to take his case for free.

At the Electronic Frontier Foundation, probably the most well-funded public interest group working in the copyright space, lawyers have made it clear for years that they’re positively eager to litigate a case over music sampling, which they believe is a clear-cut case of fair use.

Then there’s the PR issue. Gillis is a popular artist who was even praised on the floor of Congress by his local representative, Pittsburgh Democrat Mike Doyle, who called Gillis a “local guy done good;” Doyle also suggested that mash-ups might be a “transformative new art that expands the consumers experience.”

At the same time, the record labels have a healthy business going selling music sample licenses, the economics of which aren’t threatened by laptop musicians like Gillis. Established artists aren’t going to follow the lead of an upstart like Gillis-they’ll keep paying for their samples, especially since some have the hope of being on the receiving end of sampling royalties one day. They’re surely watching Gillis’ “provocations” closely, but in this case, artists and labels are smart to let sleeping dogs lie.


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