Harlem Shake gets too popular, creates copyright nightmare

In an interesting turn of events, Mad Decent, the label behind Baauer’s Harlem Shake, is in some hot water for uncleared samples in the song.

The song was never intended to be an international hit, premiering on dance label Mad Decent’s non-exclusive imprint, Jeffree’s. That kind of obscurity gives sample-based productions like Harlem Shake protection from copyright owners, but with the song closing in on the one million digital download mark, there’s now real money at stake.

“Protection” really isn’t the right word. Let’s pretend the meme videos never happened. Before the craze, Baauer was in my estimation a bit less popular than Big Chocolate in the Trap scene. With obscurity comes a comforting lack of scrutiny. In the same way that MTI doesn’t check up on every rural high school’s production of Oklahoma to ensure they’re not altering the song order, lawyers don’t simply crawl Soundcloud constantly looking for every possible uncleared sample.

So the small time artist finds security through obscurity – this is the same reason lots of people pull their song or video just as it’s about to go viral; fear of scrutiny. The real story though is one I have heard many professionals echo: if you want to use your work to make money, make sure you own your work. This could be taken as a heed against sketchy managers of bands who demand a share in song rights, or in this case as a hedge against the possibility of mass audience attention to your work.

I tell my students that copyright compliance in your own work isn’t as much a moral issue as it is a business decision. If you’re a hobbyist posting songs for free , you don’t have much to lose – the worst that could happen is your song might get taken down. But suppose Baauer has already cashed his royalty checks, he may end up with some uncomfortable back payments depending on how these negotiations go.

Of course, this whole system could use a better system for encouraging people to register their samples – imagine an alternative that was accessible- something like “no royalties until your sales reach a threshold of 1000 copies or 10,000 plays”.

But alas, the current system simply discourages sampling. I dare you to try to clear a sample for a record you’re not going to sell. The system simply doesn’t know how to handle the modern techniques of beatmakers.

Hopefully Baauer and Mad Decent will still come out of the craze with a hit on their hands, despite this.

Via The Verge

Update:

Looks like the New York Times is covering it now too.

Author: Will Kuhn

I teach music technology to high schoolers. I do some other stuff too. @willkuhn on Twitter.

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