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

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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.

8 Responses to “Why The Music Industry Isn’t Suing Mashup Star ‘Girl Talk’”

  1. Part of the issue is also that with today’s technology, anyone can do what Girl Talk does and release it. Suing Girl Talk won’t stop this, if anything it will cause a huge scene and motivate other artists to do what Girl Talk does.

    Record companies probably just realize that it’s a losing battle and so they won’t bother. Also, the fact that Girl Talk is still mostly a fringe artist helps too. If his stuff were regularly played on MTV, then the lawsuits might role in.

  2. ECartwright

    I don’t think the issue is that Pete Rock can’t sample without a license but Girltalk can. It’s just that Pete Rock/DJ Premier/Rick Rubin camp has come and gone. They all are from the era where they had to license their sounds. This new guy is trying to change the system… The problem with the article I had was that it boiled it down into a black/white dichotomy which I don’t think reflects what is happening in the courts. I think it’s really a desire to maintain the same conceptual framework in a world of technology that has basically destroyed it. The key is to create a new conceptual framework- such as compulsory licensing with statutory fees paid by the new artists to the old ones. That would make it so Biz Markie would have never had to go to court since O’Sullivan would have been legally bound to license his material to him. The new technology has made it so that the original artist should no longer have a say on whether or not to license- but they should still be compensated for the use of their work. Perhaps there could be varying categories of licenses depending on the extent to which the new recording would be similar to the original… That sounds like the next step in the doctrine.

  3. I disagree with some of your larger positions, Copycense, but overall that was a super interesting read and a perspective that i hadn’t seen before. i’m sending it to my wife, whose columbia composition students are tackling copyright, with a couple of them writing specifically about gillis.

  4. We suggested in 2009 that this issue is far more complex than simply Gillis being an “appealing defendant” (although, that’s part of the issue).

    Also, I recommend hearing the answer Illegal Art CEO Philo Farnsworth gave during Syracuse University’s REPLAY symposium on sound sampling in April 2010. Videos online at Farnsworth’s comments come at the end of the video for Session 2 – Legal Issues in Sampling.

  5. It seems extraordinary that the music labels and tv content owners aren’t working feverishly on a business model for mashups, both musical and video.

    …everything will be mashed up…
    ….it’ll get the attention also…

  6. I have been saying exactly this for a long time. And the industry has a huge amount to lose if they lose on the issue of fair use on recorded samples. Going back to Biz Markie being slammed in one case in the early ’90s, the industry found it far more profitable to charge for every sample and convince the world that’s “the law,” than to ever have the issue truly and finally resolved.