Editorial: Copyright infringement and the electronic music industry; a shocking lack of creative integrity
Incase you were living somewhere other than the internet over the past couple of weeks, the electronic dance music community has not taken lightly to the recent reports of prolific pop producer Will.i.am and his unwarranted use of Arty & Mat Zo’s “Rebound.” But with serial accusations behind him and a burgeoning call for justice in the face of creative integrity, dance music’s popular outreach looks to be called into question once again. The accused has pleaded his excuses, but with calls to formal action and a long list of alleged victims mounting, Dancing Astronaut explores the legal qualms closer to home for electronic dance music.
The issue of music copyrighting has long burdened the industry’s watchdogs, legal professionals, and accountants on the grounds of the frequent failure to abide by its basic rules. While the battles are often fought behind closed doors or the privacy of courtroom walls, awareness of the facts has never been more paramount. Here I will briefly break down the legal ramifications and why knowledge and preservation of the copyright law has never been more crucial to 21st century dance music.
High profile copyright cases can be traced back to the days of Issac Newton, but in the musical context the issue can be exemplified by cases from the likes of Queen and David Bowie, who famously took on Vanilla Ice for “Ice Ice Baby,” winning financial compensation and songwriting credits for the sample. Similarly, electronic music has not gone without its burdens. Back in 1992, experimental British duo Shut Up and Dance were practically bankrupted by 12 separate claims of infringement, the burden of which is not unthinkable even to the modern industry. In 2007, technical electronic maestro Brian Transeau, A.K.A. BT, was cleared of prosecution after Ralph Vargas and Bland-Rick Roberts alleged he had used copyrighted material. The suspected material was a nine second drum loop, emphasizing how little it takes for this legal wildfire to spread across the creative industries. Flash forward to Bauuer’s more recent disputes surrounding trap anthem “Harlem Shake”, which was finally legally cleared by label boss Diplo, and it is evident that the law holds no exceptions for artists of any age, audacity or genre under the popular dance paradigm.
On the front of creative copyright, Will.i.am has racked some serious frequent flyer miles for accusations. Having already faced the crowd for his too close-for-comfort rip-offs of Daft Punk, Tulisa, Britney Spears, and Boyz Noize, charges of his idle-handed grab and snatch tactics further implicate Quintino & Sandro Silva’s “Epic,” Audiofun’s “Get Down,” and Deniz Koyu’s “Tung” as potential victims to creative laziness at least, perhaps even copyright infringement. His charges may not have been limited to the above, but the lack of acknowledgement of the genre reeks of the stagnant practice that has stirred so much cynicism towards popular music’s ever-inching fascination with the scene.
Rather than speculate on the velocity, it is important to understand the grass roots of this legal consideration. Copyright is required in terms of the sound recording itself and any registered copyright within the lyrics or physical music. Prosecutions tend to succeed on the basis of two provable factors; the very fact that copyrighted material has been used unfairly only being truly backed up by the assertion that more than a minimal amount of the material has been used. A high-profile industry figure of Will.i.am’s professional background would be expected to have a solid legal team behind him, let alone basic knowledge of the legal implications of using or imitating copyrighted material. In the case of Arty & Mat Zo, if it is true that Anjunabeats had not cleared the use of “Rebound” and the suspected track used an instrumental stem of the original track, then its blatant incorporation of a major chunk of material would seemingly equate to straight up copyright infringement and a surefire prosecution.
Here is where the law gets a little fluffy on the behalf of those blatantly plagiarized. To sample someone’s work and pass it off is straight-up plagiarism in the legal context, but to prove that the similarity was completely coincidental can provide a strong defense for such prosecutions. This is where solid legal infrastructure is crucial to artists of all walks of the industry. Creative control, confidentiality agreements and formal means of identifying ownership of a track are all essentials assets to making (or in some cases, breaking) your chances of fighting a winning defence in the face of legal disputes. The jury so far resides incidental copying is out of the question. Between a top-end litigator and a musicologist, redemption may well be on the cards.
There are deeper resonations for the industry to consider. As electronic music culture continues to spiral in popularity, a new generation of potential producers and creative minds is welcomed with open arms. Given the ease of access to technological tools of the trade, let alone the Internet, music production and publication has never been easier. Amid the rage, two messages need to resonate across the industry.
The first is that education is essential if the integrity and character of the recorded industry is to be preserved in the context of electronic music. Information needs to be disseminated by senior artists, tastemakers and professional bodies alike to ensure that no young artist should accidently fall foul to a potentially career-ending move of legal discrepancy. The second is more relevant that ever in the wake of Will.I.Am’s recent blunder; high-profile TV spots, number one hits and corporate ties do not make you immune to the law. Far richer and more influential figures have lived and died by that sword, and at a time where the recording industry is already fighting against the odds, professional cannibalism is the last thing artists should be feigning.
With immediate cynicism brewing, one can only fear that this is a publicity stunt engineered by an irresponsible force from the bowels of popular culture. Bad news still sells; and even the likes of Chris Brown can receive public forgiveness in the process. As journalists entrusted with informing people about what goes on in the industry, it is hard to escape the concern that attempts at showcasing the wrongdoing of a TV-clad pop producer could in fact just be fulfilling the ego of a risky marketing ploy. Chris Brown’s response to the scenario was one of complete disregard. Will.i.am’s repeat approach to unwarranted sampling and creative plagiarism forms a stern middle finger to artists more deserving of the exposure yet financially worse-off than himself, not to mention the weak stream of excuses that has followed. If the conciliation of critics slating the album as forced is anything to go by, this is one plight that the American pop star has truly fumbled over, with a list of mistakes far too ridiculous for a man as professionally established as Will.i.am. It doesn’t rule out the reversed scenario, but for the moment this ‘fiasco’ reeks of irresponsibility at the high-end of the music industry.
Either way, the electronic dance community has made its voice heard. In times of saturation and uncertainty for the recorded industry, these cowboy mechanisms won’t be tolerated. As the situation develops, one thing is for certain; Dancing Astronaut will support the talent, creative integrity, and rights of the artists that deserve the basic rights of creative law.