Archive of posts tagged with "copywrong"

July 27th, 2009

Bearing Witness, or Not

Speaking of family and defending the truth, the Joel Tenenbaum case begins today. And it’s looking like it’s not going to be the trial that Charlie was hoping it would; instead it will be, no surprise, the judge’s trial.

Judge Gertner made a series of rulings this weekend, including one at 1:37 this morning — how’s that for timing? — essentially striking down Charlie’s push for a defense based on the notion of fairness and couched in the cultural practices of the digital age. Along these lines, she struck proposed witness John Palfrey; she had already ruled against me (on grounds of tardiness) and John Perry Barlow (on grounds of the “philosophical” nature of his testimony).

Here’s a nice piece published in today’s Guardian in which Joel explains himself. One hopes that a jury of his peers will at least be moved to substantially limit the damages sought by the RIAA (now up to $4.5M for sharing 30 songs). It’s pretty clear that this would be the outcome hoped for by Gertner, and it would constitute a defeat of sorts for the RIAA, who have no doubt already spent hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars on this case; it would also, from Charlie’s perspective, constitute a defeat for him & Team Joel, who are seeking no less than a nullification of the charges.

I’m sure that Charlie will find a way to make his case nonetheless, and that he will continue to register his unhappiness at the various ways his attempts to open this case up have been prevented. If Joel & Charlie lose this case, there will be a number of issues relevant to appeal. More important, I believe Charlie & Joel have made large gains in the court of public opinion. Whether or not the judge considers this to be a question of fairness, a lot of other people (increasingly) do. Whatever the verdict, I hope it offers yet another chance to revisit, in the public conversation, the question of sharing songs (non-commercially) and the role that a few large corporations should play in (limiting) our public culture — never mind the question of commercial lawfirms bullying people with far fewer resources.

For my part, I stand by my report. And I find the whole buying-a-song idea stranger and stranger by the day. The process of getting involved in the case — both as a possible expert witness, and in the many informal conversations I’ve had about it — has caused me to reshape my current research project toward something like, “Peer-to-Peer Music Industry: Musical Production, Circulation, and Value in the Digital Age.” I need a snappier title than that, especially since both “peer-to-peer” and “industry” seem like such freighted terms. Thanks to all for helping me continue to think through this stuff.

[Update: Ruling this morning that statutory damages must be assessed at $750/song at a minimum — rather than, say, $0 — Judge Gertner has further removed the jury’s ability to support Joel on grounds of fairness. (Unless the jury actually decides to nullify?)]

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June 30th, 2009

Songs as Shared Things

charlie sporting a hat bearing the name of his boat, a name inspired by some songs

No doubt most readers of this blog are aware that my father-in-law, Charlie Nesson (aka eon), is also very much IN LAW. And he’s been making the news a lot recently, mainly for defending (pro bono) Joel Tenenbaum against the RIAA who are suing him for mucho dinero for alleged copyright infringement in the DLing/sharing of 7 songs via a peer-to-peer filesharing network. The case is newsworthy in its own right, especially given that just last month Jammie Thomas, a Native American single mother of four, was ordered to pay the RIAA nearly 2 million dollars for 24 songs. The case has also become remarkable, however, because of what are widely viewed as Charlie’s unorthodox tactics.

Most of the commentary, in fact — whether by journalists or blawggers (get it?) — can’t resist throwing words like “crazy” and “reckless” around. They focus on Charlie & team’s procedural no-nos and, in the case of lawyer-blawggers (whether on the copyright or copyfight side), they all advise the pursuit of a fairly narrow legal strategy based on their interpretation of the crucial facts of the case (i.e., whether or not there is actual, admissible evidence as to whether or not the allegedly infringing distribution occurred).

I concede that it’s not all that crazy to wonder about Charlie’s strategy and tactics alike (though I do think that worrying for Joel seems disingenuous — the kid’s gonna be ok, whatever happens). There’s something unnerving to many that Charlie appears to approach Joel’s case as a rhetorical focal point — as well as a pedagogical opportunity — to stage a public conversation about copyright and closedness, or about openness and fairness and the re-empowerment of p2p justice, in the Internet age (and, especially, with concern to “digital natives“). Then again, while all this crazytalk continues to percolate, I just want to remind people that Larry Lessig’s cyberlaw classic, Code, bears the following dedication: “FOR CHARLIE NESSON, WHOSE EVERY IDEA SEEMS CRAZY FOR ABOUT A YEAR”

Now, even if that holds true, it doesn’t mean that Charlie doesn’t receive the strongest criticisms from those near and dear to him. Much as the case has been fascinating to me (and much as I cheer him on, for various reasons), there’ve also been plenty of times when I found his approach to the case rather oblique. But, and I suppose Larry had some of these moments while at the Berkman Center way back when, I’ve also found myself coming around to Charlie’s ideas, especially when one takes in the big picture — when one minds the forest rather than the trees. So when Charlie asked me (for a second time) whether I’d be willing to be offered up for expert testimony in the case, I agreed — but only after getting a clear enough sense of how he thought my ethnomusicological perspective might be directly relevant to the trial.

Last week I sent my expert report to Charlie, and Team Tenenbaum submitted a motion (a little late?) to have my report and testimony admitted to the proceedings (or something like that — legalese is not a slang I sling). You can download a pdf here, but I want to cut’n’paste the substance of the report into this post as I think it may be of interest to you, good reader — and moreover, according to Ray Beckerman, potentially useful in some RIAA trials (if not, in Ray’s opinion, Joel’s). As much as I find legal notions of “truth” to be weird, the following passages do resonate as true for me, increasingly so in fact (as I’ll explain below, after the text).

Songs as Shared Things

Songs have always been shareable and shared. People, young and old, share songs with each other – by singing or playing them – in a variety of ways and settings, through a variety of technologies and media or other manner of accompaniment (as well as a capella). Songs as recordings are not fundamentally different in this respect. Since the advent of recorded media, people have shared songs in this form as well: played for each other in private and public settings, on personally distributed mixes (mixed tapes / CDs), and, in the age of mp3s, as files sent via email, IM (instant message), torrent, third-party hosting site, or any manner of online sites and services.

Ironically, today songs are most often shared via a video site, YouTube, which has become a de facto public audio repository. This development and the explosion of music-centered blogs and forums offer evidence, in the form of pervasive and popular practice, of how musical recordings are treated as public culture, things which people send to friends, family, and colleagues, point to and comment on, and remix in the course of their everyday lives.

To click on a YouTube link in order to access a song (or to send such a link to a friend) would hardly be considered an illegal action on the part of the millions of people who do so each day, and yet the action is hardly different from the Defendant’s use of a filesharing network to access the seven songs in question just a few years ago. Those songs are [links & YouTube stats added 6/30]:

* Bad Religion – American Jesus [448 results]
* Green Day – Minority [1,870 results]
* Incubus – New Skin [266 results]
* Incubus – Pardon Me [991 results]
* Nirvana – Come As You Are [4,190 results]
* Outkast – Wheelz of Steel [21 results]
* Sublime – Miami [65 results]

If one searches for any of these songs on YouTube today, one finds numerous instances of each, sometimes numbering in the dozens or even hundreds. Notably, beyond merely presenting the songs, the users who upload the videos frequently add their own elements, personalizing the songs in order to share them with peers and other potential viewers: they add new images, both still and video (including found footage and self-produced material); transcribe and caption the lyrics; sometimes, they edit or remix the audio itself, especially in the case of hip-hop songs (e.g., Outkast) – an interactivity consistent with cultural practice in hip-hop more generally.

Only in the relatively recent past – within the last century – have songs, in the “fixed” media form of audio recordings, been so strongly regulated as pieces of property whose use by others might be strictly limited. An examination at the level of cultural practice – that is, how songs as audio recordings have been used by people – demonstrates that even in such “fixed” form, songs have continued to serve as a commonplace site of sharing and creative interaction (also known as remixing). This becomes particularly evident in the use of playback technologies such as turntables as creative instruments in their own right (aiding the emergence of hip-hop and disco in the 1970s), an approach powerfully extended by the tools of the digital age.

Historicizing the Musical Commodity

The notion of the song as commodity is a relatively recent one, enabled by a certain technological confluence (the advent of recordable media and mass production), and it seems to be fading relatively quickly in the face of a new technological confluence (the digital). As musicologist Timothy Taylor writes in an award-winning article on “The Commodification of Music at the Dawn of the Era of ‘Mechanical Music’”: “the music-commodity has to be understood as always in flux, always caught up in historical, cultural, and social forces” (Taylor 2007: 283).

The album as a commodity form is a particularly illustrative example of this socially and culturally situated flux. The age of the album – roughly, the late 60s to the late 90s – was a fleeting moment, again enabled by a particular set of technologies (the advent of the long-player record, or LP, followed by the cassette and CD). While early album-oriented artists approached the LP form as an artistic opportunity, leading to the emergence of the “concept album,” by the late 90s album offerings were far more typically collections of “filler” material, propelled by a hit or two, sold at exorbitant prices (e.g., $18.99) to customers with no alternatives. At this point, the album is, in most cases, an anachronism, either an indulgent and/or exploitative exercise. Notably, internet vendors such as iTunes or eMusic and other distribution methods (including blogs and filesharing networks) have reinstated the primacy of the single track as the prevailing unit of popular music.

Reasonable paid alternatives to free downloading have only become available recently, and even then rather unevenly with regard to what is available and in what form. The defunct torrent tracker, Oink – and its ilk – offer(ed) higher quality files, better documented, uncrippled by DRM software, and of a far greater variety than one can find via any of the legally-permitted online music vendors.

Listening as a Transformative Use

Listening is an active process, a rich domain of interpretation and imagination, manifesting differently – according to personal idiosyncrasies and cultural mores alike – for each person and in each moment. As anthropologist Steven Feld explains in the oft cited “Communication, Music, and Speech about Music” (Feld 1984), the listening process is, when one considers all that is potentially involved, an enormously complex phenomenon very much centered on the particular listener in question. According to Feld, listening as an act of “musical consumption” involves, among other things: the dialectics of the musical object itself (text-performance, mental-material, formal-expressive, etc.), the various interpretive moves applied by the listener (locational, categorical, associational, reflective, evaluative), and the contextual frames available at any moment (expressive ideology, identity, coherence).

All of this activity is inextricably social in character, regardless of the musical object in question. As Feld notes, “We attend to changes, developments, repetitions–form in general–but we always attend to form in terms of familiarity or strangeness, features which are socially constituted through experiences of sounds as structures rooted in our listening histories” (85).

While grounded in communication studies and musical semiotics in Feld’s study, such an interpretation – centering the socially-situated hearing subject rather than the musical object (whether live performance or mp3) – is also consistent with a great deal of literary and media theory from the past thirty years, from Roland Barthes’s infamous 1977 “Death of the Author” to Henry Jenkins’s contemporary theories about spreadability and value.

With some exceptions, commenters on Ray Beckerman’s and Ben Sheffner’s blogs, as well as on an Ars Tecnica post about the submission of my report, are generally dismissive of the text above — some of them without even reading it. They regard it as another distraction in a trial that has become, for them, more a media circus than anything. Some of those who engage it on the merits think it’s extremely far-fetched to argue that songs are inherently personal(ized) and social — hence publicly shared things — or that listening might legitimately be understood as a truly transformative process. I wonder whether readers of this blog agree?

Let me say in closing — as something of a supplement to my report — that I have been more and more persuaded in the days since filing that what I wrote is, certainly for the purposes of the court, true. Exhibit A, if you will, is the astounding level of activity centered on YouTube in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death. As I wrote in a post published yesterday,

How do we get a grasp on the actual immensity of the event? What do we know, for example, about MJ’s YouTube views? — & not only on the thousands of instantiations of his songs and videos that fans have uploaded but even on the handful of tracks that sampled his songs and also have become shrines of sorts?

It would not be a terribly controversial contention, I don’t think, to say that YouTube — the #2 search engine, period — was/is the go-to place for listening to and sharing Michael Jackson songs (and their musical kin). And that goes for most songs/recordings. YouTube has become a de facto, if willy-nilly and ephemeral, audio archive for the world of music. I’m pretty convinced that if Joel — or someone like him (someone like you?) — wanted to listen to those 7 songs (or any others) on his computer today, he’d more likely look them up on YouTube (or some similar site) than seek them out on a filesharing network. And that’s something that a jury of his peers might well take into consideration.

But it’s not merely a question of easy access and the (open) social norms & values we see expressed in YouTube / internet practice (and, yes, there are plenty of dubious “values” expressed in these spaces too). What’s even more instructive about the Michael Jackson example — or any song/dance meme, for that matter — is how songs no longer reside in some pure, protectable commodity form, if they ever did. Songs today quite clearly reside on the internet, in that peer-to-peer space connecting me to you. Simply by observing YouTube practice, which this blog(ger) has spent a great deal of time doing, we bear witness to the profound degree to which music (as songs, dances, melodies, drum breaks, and other forms) is always already social, personal(ized), and constantly transformed in the process.

This (social) fact of music industry — i.e., the work that music does, the social and cultural activity it animates — has serious implications, of course, for THE music industry. As I argued on a few occasions last year,

the phenomenon of widely-distributed (or,
in p2p parlance, “shared”) music video represents a crossroads not
just for _the_ music industry, but for music _industry_ itself — that
is, the cultural work that music does.

In this regard, I think Kevin Driscoll could serve as a good expert witness as well; his master’s thesis, especially the history of mixtapes –> YouTube narrative, strikes me as a deeply persuasive account of the technological-social migration of hip-hop practice — and youth culture more generally — into new media.

The big question is, I suppose, whether Joel’s judge and jury will also agree that such testimony is germane to the case. As one of Joel’s peers, dear reader, your opinion is relevant too.

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April 3rd, 2009

A La Plenísima

Plena is Spanish for ‘full.’ But it has other meanings too, depending where yr @ —


In Puerto Rico, plena refers to street music played on panderetas (see, e.g., Sorongo‘s comments here).

In Panama, plena refers to reggae — homegrown reggae en español in particular.

The riddim method has been alive and well in Panama for many years. Before Puerto Ricans took up the mantle, it was Panamanian pioneers such as Nando Boom and El General who showed the way for gente to rap (or better, deejay) over dancehall riddims in Spanish. As demo’d by collections such as this one, a good number of formative Panamanian reggae jams were essentially traducciones of contemporary Jamaican hits. That tradition — of translating and transforming the latest greatest Jamaican reggae songs for Panamanian audiences — continues apace today.

When I was writing my chapter for our reggaeton book, I surveyed the contemporary Panamanian scene to see how that time-honored reggae tradition was faring and found a good number of cover songs amidst the current crop of productions. Here’s part of what ended up in a footnote:

… in 2006, one could hear Panamanian DJ Principal proclaiming himself “El Rey del Dancehall” with the same cadences and over the same riddim that Jamaica’s Beenie Man used to crown himself “King of the Dancehall” a few months earlier, or Panama’s Aspirante employing for “Las Cenizas Dijeron Goodbye” the melody from Jamaican singer Gyptian’s “Serious Times” over a reverent re-lick of the strikingly acoustic Spiritual War riddim that propels the original (though Aspirante changes the text from a meditation on the state of the world to a failed relationship).

All of this is un poco preamble to put into context the tip I received from a reader this week (thx, Tom!), reporting that Panamanian reggae artists are, unsurprisingly, enthralled by the “Miss Independent” riddim. No doubt this is well below the radar — none of these Panamanian versions are about to get played on, say, Hot 97 as Vybz’s “Ramping Shop” was — so I doubt that N_-Y_ or St_rg_te or E_I will be sending threatening emails anytime soon (certain vowels omitted to evade litigious Googlers).

Tom says that he counted no fewer than 11 (!) songs employing the riddim. Here are a few, including one which, funny and densely, simply features someone rapping in Spanish on top of Vybz and Spice’s song. The rest employ the instrumental riddim-wise —


     tommy real-atados.mp3



If you want to hear more along these lines, check out this mixtape of Panamanian dancehall, aka “Da Spanish Reggae Blue Print” —


& if you want to learn more about the plena / bultrón / reggae/ton scene inna Panama, check out the blog by MTVU Fulbright scholar, Larnies.

Finally, talk about plenathis site has more mp3s than you could shake a bot at. Basta! I’m full —

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February 16th, 2009

Re:Wine Wine Wine Wine Wine Wine Wine (We Like It)

As things ramp up for carnival, the strains of soca seem increasingly in the air (& my inbox).

Believe it or not, there actually is a likkle soca in the air here in Boston. One key source projecting the strains of carnival into the city’s soundscape is BIG CITY FM, my fave “pirate” reggae/soca channel in town. It’s great just to be able to have such a reliable public resource for Caribbean pop & dance music (well, relatively reliable — at least, it’s a pretty clear signal close to the city). But what makes BIG CITY so special is that, for all the ways it reps for JA or T&T, it also sounds very Boston.

Case in point: Junior Rodigan, the Iranian-British bloke who mixes up UK, JA, and Bawstin accents seamlessly while chatting about the Celtics or the latest reggae scandal. (I’ve got an old, juicy interview with Junior — who takes his name from Father Rodigan, of course — which I should post here at some point.) Take, for example, this recent excerpt that I recorded in my car on my phone a couple weeks ago (on Bob’s b-day, as you’ll hear). It gives a sense of the Boston-Carib banter of BIG CITY, but the main reason I recorded it — and share it here — is b/c it offers another lovely example of how something like the beat from “Miss Indpendent” gets loosed from its connections to the original tune, serving here as but a background riddim for hyping local events (sorry, Stargate, u cyaaaan stop that) —
pardon the dict-iphone audio quality

As you hear at the end of the excerpt, showing the station’s broad musical mandate, they launch into a new track by Ryan Leslie (who, you may not know, once sang in the same gospel choir as yer boy, but that’s a story for another time). BIG CITY tends to mix up hip-hop, reggae, r&b, and soca, depending on who’s DJing. Sunday morning = serious slow jam oldies session, complete w/ pullups!

Anywaaayeee, during a soca block a couple weeks ago, I heard a song on BIG CITY which quite caught my ears — on its own musical merits, yes, but also, importantly, how it tugged on the strings of musical memory. It sounded like this (actually, a lot better before it hit my phone) —

I tried shazam-ing it but no dice, so I later quoted the memorable chorus to a trusty Trinny trainspotter —

yes boss!

heard a nice soca pon the radio yesterday. chorus goes, “wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine wine,” and has a buju-sounding vocalist on it (bunji?). any tips?

to which —

Hope tings cool on your side, rasta.

That’s Iwer George and Ziggy Rankin…Ziggy Ranking is the gravelly voiced singjay, a budding talent from T&T. Iwer is the self-proclaimed ‘boss’, but I have my issues with dat artiste…one thing’s for sure, he’s a guaranteed hit maker.

De riddim BAD for days…it’s out of Barbados (who always impresses me with their soca productions, especially their groovy soca), but make sure to check out the Peter Ram track and the Rupee track on dat riddim (coconut tree).

Yup, that’s the one. As noted, what caught my ear wasn’t just the tune itself (though I do like the simple, catchy chorus) but the references to reggae, including a riddim relick and a vocal allusion.

I mentioned these features to my bredrin, who replied,

De FIRST time I heard dat riddim, I was like: now DAT is how you combine dancehall and soca! Bro, there was a time growing up in Trini that NO session was complete without a complete Cat classic set!

The Bajan crew responsible for the Coconut Tree is known as Monstapiece Inc. They produced Bunji Garlin and Family’s “By de Bar” a few years ago. Interestingly, the riddim for “By de Bar” (which also propelled an ode to fancy alcohol by TOK) is itself a relick of sorts, though it takes inspiration not from a reggae riddim but from a hip-hop song: Busta’s “Pass the Courvoisier” (produced by the Neptunes).

This seems to be their shtick, relicking hip-hop/r&b beats for soca songs: 50’s “P.I.M.P.” and R.Kelly’s “Snake” have also been relicked by the Monstapiece crew. (Hear and excerpt of the former here.)

& round & round we go. Par for the course at this point, I know. Don’t mean to sound like a broken record. Just think of all these copywrong posts as relicks of each other, or sumpm.

Anyhow, here’s a playlist on the Coconut Tree, if you care to listen. I must confess I do like that Iwer/Ziggy jawn, but that might be due to pure music nerdery —

(2009)Coconut Tree Riddim***(Mostapiece Productions)(Trinidad & Barbados)

Or, if you’d prefer to watch a CDjuggling —

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February 12th, 2009

Meta Matters!

ok, second post in a row jacking a video from those canny video jackers @ immanentdiscursivity

i love this. don’t you?

not only is kid downright adorable, he’s using a youtube vid of a solo piano rendition of the akon song (now a duet!) to accompany himself. that’s some srsly born digital creativity right there. he even frames his own rendition with a live screenshot & offers some genuine thanks/attribution to the pianist.

any corporation that wants to mute this kind of activity should be ashamed of itself.

(have you been reading the youtomb blog? you should.)

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February 3rd, 2009

Pop Champagne, Pop Copyright

Listening to the Federation‘s recent mixx of reggae hottage for Mad Decent, a few things struck me per recent conversations here:


1) the use of the “hey” sample in the intro (0:30-0:40), like an airhorn or any other selector sound effect (speaking of which, check the first sound on that page — you can’t make this stuff up, folks!)

2) the use of the beat from “Pop Champagne” as a riddim. Importantly, not only do we hear Elephant Man’s unauthorized voicing “Sweep the Floor” (akin to “Rampin Shop,” legally speaking), but we also hear TWO DUBPLATES that also employ Ron Browz’s minimal beat. These latter recordings were no doubt commissioned by Federation Sound themselves (so special), and they call attn to the degree to which such “remixes” or “unauthorized” recordings are deeply embedded in performance practice: as long as selectors need to move a crowd and kill a next sound, they’re going to be asking artists to voice on the latest hype. That sort of activity is essentially un-police-able, in part because it resides on the margins of the music biz (if however central to reggae industry), in part because it moves so fast.

For another example, see the Fed’s most recent dancehall reggae mega-mix, in which the beat from Kanye’s “Heartless” propels a couple tracks: 1) Dr.Evil’s no-brainer (but brilliant) “counteraction“; and 2) yet another instance of Ele hopping pon the now ting quick as he can.

These all illustrate that despite overreaching laws and chilling effects, the riddim method is alive and well in Jamaica and the dancehall diaspora. Maybe more notably, it has caught on outside Jamaica in a way that perhaps outstrips reggae’s “original” model for creative (and contemporaneous) reuse.

Indeed, the most remarkable examples illustrating the global uptake of the riddim method in the last year happened in hip-hop. The beats from Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” and MIA’s “Paper Planes” essentially became global riddims, generating about a zilli remixes, freestyles, versions, voicings, wot-ever-u-call-em (and that’s not even counting post-milli beats and such).

Can the law catch up to something faster than it?

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January 30th, 2009

Dem Nuh Ramp

What is it, copywrong week in Jamaica?

Tip o’ the proverbial hat to Ripley for pointing me to an article in the Jamaica Star which reports that EMI have served Vybz Kartel with a SERIOUS cease&desist on behalf of none other than (now former) w&w faves, Ne-Yo and Stargate (aka, Shaffer Smith, Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen) —

The current version of Vybz Kartel and Spice’s Rampin Shop has been ordered to be destroyed and pulled from all radio stations, television stations and the Internet by EMI Music Publishing. Plans are in motion for the song to be re-mixed and re-mastered so it can be played on air again.

When the STAR spoke to Vybz Kartel yesterday he explained that he had received an e-mail from EMI Music Publishing stating that Rampin Shop infringes on the copyright license of Miss Independent by Ne-Yo. Rampin Shop was released towards the end of 2008 and is currently on a remade version of the Miss Independent rhythm, the song while immensely popular in Jamaica has not been officially released to the International market. While Ne-Yo is officially signed to Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG), the copyright license for the composition of the Ne-Yo song is licensed by EMI Music Publishing for composers Shaffer Smith, Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen.

Kartel forwarded the e-mail from EMI to the STAR in which it stated, “‘Ramping Shop’ by Vybz Kartel and Spice infringes the copyright in ‘Miss Independent’ (Smith/Hermansen/Eriksen). Clearance of this use of ‘Miss Independent’ has not been sought or obtained and I am informed that clearance will not be forthcoming. Accordingly ‘Ramping Shop’ cannot be released or exploited in any way. Please confirm your acknowledgement and acceptance of this, and that you will arrange that (i) all recordings of the infringing track will be re-called and destroyed and that no further copies will be issued, and (ii) that the audio and/or video will be taken down immediately from all Internet sites.”

Note that the effervescent instrumental underlying “Miss Independent” is referred to here as “the Miss Independent rhythm” which nicely & subtly indicates how Jamaicans tend to think about accompanimental tracks: as always-already ready for a next “voicing.” Indeed, you can find a few other voicings (and even some mashups) floating around under the name Miss Independent riddim. Some, like Beniton’s version, show how spry artists engage with contemporary hits these days, dialoguing with the original while offering new, localized commentary. (You can call that illegal, but it’s not gonna stop.) Actually, I say “these days” because it’s increasingly common everywhere, but we should acknowledge that recording almost-immediate (cover) versions of r&b hits has been the thing to do in Kingston since, oh, the 1950s. (I realize that digital copying complicates things a little, but it needn’t. And, really, what’s the threat to Ne-Yo/Stargate? “Miss Independent” was a big hit; “Rampin Shop” threatens its future revenue stream NOT IN THE LEAST.)

Vybz’s too-hot-to-handle duet with Spice has been getting serious play in Jamaica and the dancehall diaspora — thus making it a target (unless, as some speculate, Kartel got fingered by a “rival camp”); whereas Beniton’s is not — I mean, is Beniton even reachable? JK HERE’S HIS PHONE# LOL). I’m sick enough of that beat at this point, having quite worn it out, that I’m happy for Kartel to re-release “Rampin” with a new backing, though I did like the striking juxtaposition of Stargate’s soft instrumental bedding and Vybz&Spice’s rough-and-tumble pillowtalk. Which raises the question: can Kartel’s version be heard as parody?

Here’s another irony (not that it’s not reconcilable with current copyright or certain notions of musical ownership), it turns out that, while denying the right to others to participate in contemporary remix culture, Stargate shamelessly reused their own music for “Miss Independent.”

Talk about an industry that’s out of touch. Can you believe that EMI would demand something as patently absurd and impossible as destroying all copies? “from all Internet sites”? Haha good luck with that! Next I’m expecting Cary Sherman to say the RIAA has to “do it in the Facebook, with the Twittering.”

Kartel’s song remains pretty darn easy to find on the net, and I suspect it’ll stay that way. (Praise Jah for decentralization & the promiscuity of digital files. Were only up to Google/YouTube, could we kiss the song goodbye?)

If you haven’t heard it yet, however, and don’t know what you’re getting into, be forewarned: in the time-honored tradition of Caribbean bawdy music, “Rampin Shop” is not for the feint of heart — SO ONLY LISTEN IF U LIKE UR SLACKNESS! (i.e., if you appreciate a good dirty joke. or a bad one. this has both!)

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January 29th, 2009

Showtime (for Lawsuits), Unfinished Business (for Lawyers) has the scoop today on a lawsuit instigated by producer Dave Kelly —

In Jamaican dancehall culture, “re-licking” a riddim has undoubtedly been a way of life. Almost monthly there seems to be a remake of a dancehall, reggae or rocksteady riddim that originated anywhere from just a few years ago to decades ago, often with no thought, care or compensation being made to its original composer or creator.

One veteran dancehall music producer however is not taking the re-lick of one of his creations so lightly. Dave Kelly, owner of Madhouse Records and producer of numerous classic dancehall riddims (including the Joyride, Bruk Out, Bug and Eighty-Five riddims) has reportedly sued for royalties off Linton ‘TJ’ White’s Unfinished Business riddim which was released last year. Notably, Dancehall.Mobi posted about the Unfinished Business riddim when it was just released, and highlighted that it sounded remarkably similar to Dave Kelly’s Showtime riddim which was released circa 1998.

The Unfinished Business riddim has spawned several local hits, and two international hits in Mavado’s “So Special” and Serani’s “No Games”, and White has acknowledged that the royalties from the riddim are presently tied up in litigation. It’s not known exactly how the proceeds from the sale and licensing of songs on the Unfinished Business riddim would be shared, but there are rumors that Kelly has claimed as much as 45% of the rights to the riddim.

Here are the two riddims in question, made available by for the sake of comparison —

Showtime vs. Unfinished Business Riddims

To my ears, the only thing the two riddims have in common is the admittedly obvious and distinctive “hey” sample. I can’t recall any examples right now, but I don’t think Unfinished Business is the first riddim to re-use that particular sound. I wonder whether Kelly was even the first to use it — or where he sampled it from. As central and important as that little sample is, asking for 45% of the rights seems far too greedy, and dangerous.

The layers of hypocrisy run deep on this one. Plenty of Kelly’s riddims are themselves re-licks or employ recognizable (and presumably unauthorized) samples. The Eighty-Five riddim — which underpinned Cham’s huge hit “Ghetto Story” — quite clearly versions (and samples) the Sleng Teng. Another of Kelly’s famous productions, the Playground riddim, centrally employs a sample from the Roots’ “Section.” [Oops: the Playground riddim was actually produced by Jeremy Harding, who I often confuse with Kelly for some reason.] And the Joyride riddim is audibly indebted — check that offbeat organ stab — to the riddim underlying, among others, Conroy Smith’s 1988 hit “Dangerous” (which, notably, is the first track in this bit of “Joyride” juggling posted to YouTube, showing how listeners/selectors connect Kelly’s riddim to the earlier production by Hyman “Jah Life” Right). [Hmmm: Gabriel rightly points out in the comments that the Jah Life version of “Dangerous” was produced later — 1996 it turns out — and hence is a re-lick of Joyride rather than vice versa, so I guess I will have to temper my criticisms here somewhat. Still, the overall thrust of my argument remains the same.] Indeed, it’s a wonder that Kelly hasn’t yet sued Christopher Birch over the similarities between Baddaz and Joyride, but maybe that’s because Baddaz has yet to produce equivalent hits to Mavado’s “So Special” and Serani’s “Playing Games.” So, the question for the suddenly litigious Mr.Kelly is: are you willing to give up similarly large chunks of the rights to your riddims to — among others, no doubt — King Jammy, the Roots, and Jah Life?

Hope so. Because if people start litigating around re-licks like this, the whole riddim system — which has for decades propelled the most prolific music industry in the world — is in danger of collapsing in on itself.

As I’ve argued (along with Peter Manuel), the riddim method has long operated as though rocksteady and reggae recordings were a creative commons from which musicians draw (relatively) freely. The adoption of international/US copyright law by Jamaica in the 1990s has thrown a wrench into what was an otherwise pretty organic cultural system (sure, it has its flaws, such as exploitative producers taking credit from day-laborer musicians, but that’s another issue; producers still get the spoils under current copyright).

Responses to riddim re-licking used to be more creative. As I wrote back in 2005, referring to David Katz’s oral history of reggae during the lawsuit between Scientist and Greensleeves —

perhaps it was better when these things, in lieu of any kind of laws in place or in practice, were simply settled musically. with no legal recourse available, sugar minott and coxsone dodd would simply stay one step ahead of the competition [note: for those unaware of the “ethnic” dynamic in jamaica, think of yellowman’s “mr.chin” as a kindler, gentler, perhaps more insidious “black korea”; which is to say, there’s a similiar dynamic happening there, but accented differently; note also, however, that minott dismisses such attitudes as immature–an important qualification]:

Though the advent of rockers stole the fire from Bunny Lee’s flying cymbal, the Revolutionaries’ habit of adapting Studio One rhythms naturally caused most offence at Brentford Road, particularly after many of Coxsone’s artists defected to Channel One. Coxsone’s greatest weapon in the war of styles turned out to be Sugar Minott, a man with his ear constantly on the pulse of Jamaica’s dancehall scene. ‘It was a living war with Channel One,’ laughs Minott. ‘They used to call me “Coxsone’s Boy.” When they made “I Need a Roof” for Channel One, I immediately knew what it was, because I’m an expert in music and rhythm [i.e., riddims] from [when] I was a kid. So I went to Coxsone and said, “Look, it’s “Mean Girl.” We went to buy a flask of rum, so I was hyped up, did over “I Need A Roof.” Me and Tabby them was friends, but I didn’t care because I was like “Channel One? I hate Chinese.” That was my thing in them times–I was young that way: “I’m not singing for no Chinese.” There was a next one called “Woman Is Like A Shadow.” Coxsone called me and said, “I want you to sing this music, listen that tune,” so I thought it was an old song from some old group that never came out and he wanted me to do it over, but I didn’t know it was a Meditations song that never even came out yet. I did over “Woman Is Like A Shadow” and it came out before the original, because the original used to play on the sound. When my version drop in, the whole of Baktu was looking for me–it was a war with Channel One. Every time they try to do a Coxsone song I go and tell him, so they came and fling bottle and stone to mash Coxsone’s studio. They had the force–everybody was following the Chinese. Somehow Coxsone and Joe Joe got in some fight and that was that.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Joseph Hoo-Kim contests Sugar’s version of events. (p.227)

In short, lawsuits such as this one threaten the very vitality of Jamaican popular music. I hope Dave Kelly, who himself stands on the shoulders of giants, reconsiders. And I would urge the Jamaican government to reshape their IP laws in a manner that attends to distinctive local creative processes.

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January 10th, 2009

(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Publish)

First things first, here’s a biographical essay about Kool Herc* I wrote (almost 3 years ago!). I don’t have a good excuse for posting it so late, but I do have a good reason for being able to post it on my site at all: because I made sure I could.

In other words, when I was sent the bullshit boilerplate contract from Greenwood insisting that they retain exclusive rights over my work, in all forms, in perpetuity, I asked for a better one. In particular, I wanted to reserve the right to republish the piece myself, at least on this humble website. You’d think that would be standard practice by now, and I’m happy to note that it’s becoming more and more common. But the cutthroat world of copyright — as mediated by that subspecies of homo sapiens we call lawyers** — is so completely screwed up that the norm is for each party to demand far more than is reasonable.

Steven Shaviro was kvetching about this last year, and he recently reported that, b/c of his refusal to give in to “ridiculously harsh contract terms,” he’s been able to republish the piece in question well before the 5 years (!) they initially wanted him to wait.

As someone deeply concerned with the enclosures of copyright — and one who has attended rather closely to its effects on music production — I tend to push for my own rights as an author (or more precisely, to resist ceding my rights to others; whenever possible I license my works so that others can remix them). Sometimes I may push too hard (though I don’t think so), as when I amended a boilerplate contract from The Fader which they made me re-amend (which may or may not be the reason J Shep stopped returning my emails).

In the last year, as certain institutions with the power to do so have pushed for open access, a number of (young) scholars have spoken out about the ridiculousness of lockbox journals/publishers. Of course, it’s not always so easy to resist. There are pressures to publish in certain places if one wants to raise one’s profile and be taken seriously in one’s field. Hence, in response to danah boyd’s vow never again to publish in a place the public cannot access, Anne Galloway said “I think not.” If you’re not in the academic publishing game, you might be under the assumption that authors and editors actually make money putting together journal issues. It’s a total racket, and it has to change.

It’s true that for those of us — like me, Steven, Anne, etc. — who are savvy/brave/attentive enough to ask, it’s possible to reserve certain rights fairly easily. The problem as I see it, though, is the systemic attempt by publishers to automatically (and often fairly quietly — in the small print) divest authors of some rather basic rights. The answer/solution, I suppose, is to increase awareness of the various strategies and tactics one can adopt to push against the status quo, including advocating for oneself and embracing open forms/forums for publishing. It’s my hope that individual authors (or better, collectives) will be able to change the way things are done in the publishing world thanks to emerging technologies and ethics of sharing.

It’s easy, especially as a young academic, to become bitter over the standard process of farming out knowledge production to these vicious middlemen. It took me several weeks to research and write that Kool Herc essay, and all I got out of it was this lousy $175 reference work that no one is going to read. So you can imagine my reaction when I was approached to write another 10,000 word essay for $0 (and no rights) for Greenwood. I replied to the graduate student editing the volume (on “Hip-hop Around the World”) — and the open CC list of hip-hop scholars he targeted — with the following:

Dear All,

At a glance, a project like this seems really exciting and promising, but having participated in the first of Greenwood’s hip-hop reference works, I have serious reservations. For one, a 10,000 word essay is no small labor, and yet Greenwood offers no kind of fair compensation for one’s work, aside from a copy of the rather glossy books that they then sell to libraries for $175 or so. (I realize that that’s par for the course in academic publishing, but it’s pretty disgusting and disappointing, and frankly, I’m tired of it.) Moreover, one has to ask for a special contract in order to retain one’s copyright over the essays and reserve the rights to republish. I requested a non-exclusive contract for my contribution and I’m happy to report that they sent one out right away, but I find it pernicious that their default agreement is so greedy.

For two, because of the books’ pricing and style and outreach, they will hardly be read by anyone, which is really unfortunate given the (world)wide appeal of these subjects and, presumably, the quality of the contributions. I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade here — especially the editors, who commit a lot of time and energy into making these interesting and useful and relevant — but I really have to question the premise of such projects. Ultimately, they seem to result in little more than making money for Greenwood and exploiting academics’ (and especially grad students’) labor. I refuse to participate in another one.

I’d rather see a group blog, or wiki, devoted to fleshing this stuff out, sharing it with the world, and inviting feedback. But I guess that doesn’t look as impressive on a CV. I hope that one day, soon, it will.

In Solidarity,

And I’m pleased to report that several of the people on the list (including some of the hip-hop scholars I most admire) responded to me, off-list, to say how much they agreed. Here are a few —

right on, wayne.

this is a private note back to you. i agree with all of your points. i’ve honestly never thought highly of greenwood (or their parent, praeger, which is essentially academic self-publishing without the ‘self’ represented that much). but you also point to the university press copyright regime, which has been a particular sore point with me for years. i’ve lost friends over this, but i feel like they cheapen our work and privatize info in the name of some lofty academic goal. it’s all bullshit. in any case, i don’t know the editors or how they got all of our email addys, but i hope your letter at least gave them pause. it’s early in the project, and your intervention might give them the juice they need to get a better contract.

Thanks for the headsup, man. I know exactly what you mean. I just came out with a co-edited reader and 2 days before the book party find out that the book sells for $180. Outrageous. Who the f… is gonna buy a book at that price. I sure wouldn’t. I told people to steal it, abbie hoffman-style.
guess we gotta put out our own stuff, eh?

I’m with you on this. thanks for writing what was in in my mind.

That was a nice bit of affirmation, especially from these folks (who shall remain anonymous).

As for “Hip-hop Around the World,” I’d rather save my 10,000 words for my own project — or the kind of collective endeavor I suggested in my response. As some readers may know, I taught a course on the “Global Hip-hop” last spring. I plan to post the syllabus here soon. I don’t have to ask anyone permission to do that.

Or to blog.

Thank g0d.

* About the Herc essay: despite my lingering bitterness, it was a fine opportunity for me to retell the story of hip-hop, to a general audience, through the lens of a Jamaican immigrant — to try to sort some things out about how Herc transmuted soundsystem stylee into something his Bronx peers could get down to. So I’m thankful for that. And I’m glad to be able to share it with you. (Again, it’s here.) In an attempt to piece things together, I combed every resource I could find: hip-hop (oral) histories, back issues of The Source, and, of course, the internet. I have to say, however, that above all, I owe a HUGE debt to Jeff Chang, in particular the chapter on Herc in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, which has informed so much of my own research on the relationship between reggae and hip-hop. Nuff props to Jeff, and to Herc. Rock rock on…

** I’m related to several lawyers (more than I’d like, really), so I reserve the right (heh) to josh like this.

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December 2nd, 2008

Iron Chic

videyogas ::

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November 30th, 2008

Immersion Blender

  • larisa/ripley's article on the recent rash of dubious takedowns in the mp3blogspotosphere :: written for a youth/general readership, so pretty backgroundy, but a good explanation of the current lay of the land :: bye bye blogspots
  • like many other music blogspotters in recent weeks, gregzinho gets hit with a DMCA takedown notice, served to him by Blogger/Google thx to some bottomfeeder based in irving, TX (who cut his teeth doing "anti-piracy" "work" for his own pr0n sites and has now turned his attn — presumably for a decent paycheck — to music blogspots) :: there are layers and layers of middlemen in this reeking, sinking ship of an industry :: can u see the rats running up the masts?
  • on musical copying, copyright, and chilling effects from ray charles to kanye to the legendary K.O., incl a brief history of sampling litigation in hip-hop :: certain issues (e.g., race & appropriation) call for more nuance, but the focus — a good argument for why copyright/IP doesn't work so well in music — is sharp :: nice generals too — "Musical styles change over time and so do their techniques of appropriation. Sometimes musical generations find their successors are engaging in different types of borrowing than they themselves engaged in. They do not always find it congenial. It is striking how often musicians condemn a younger generation’s practice of musical appropriation as theft, while viewing their own musical development and indebtedness as benign and organic. … [Sampling] is a different kind of borrowing than the adaptation of a chord pattern from a gospel standard to make an R&B hit. But which way does the difference cut as a matter of ethics, aesthetics, or law?"
  • bravo to james boyle (& yale U press) for making his new book on the public domain & enclosure in the digital age — quite appropriately — downloadable, readable as html (with the ability to comment on individual paragraphs!), and CC licensed!
  • "The internet makes copying cheap. Businesses that see their livelihood as dependent on the restriction of copying – concentrated in the recording, film, publishing and software industries – are understandably upset. Their goal is to have the same ability to control their content as they had in an analog world but to keep all the benefits of pervasiveness, cost saving, and viral marketing that a global digital network brings. To that end, they have moved aggressively to change laws worldwide, to introduce stiffer penalties, expand rights, mandate technological locks, forbid reverse engineering, and increase enforcement. It is not so much a case of wanting to have their cake and eat it, as to have their cake and make your cake illegal. Yet there are hints in each of these industries of a different business model, one that aims to encourage, rather than to forbid copying. …"
  • "These images of kids playing video games were created by Robbie Cooper, a British photographer who employed a Red camera — a very-high-resolution video camera — and then took stills from the footage. Cooper, who says he was inspired by the camera technique that Errol Morris used to interview people in his documentaries, arranged his equipment so that the players were actually looking at a reflection of the game on a small pane of glass. He placed the camera behind the reflection so that it could look directly into their faces as they played." :: write-up & slide show @

videyoga ::

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I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com


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