Girl Talk’s music may be hugely enjoyable but, according to current copyright laws, it’s illegal because copyrighted artists aren’t being paid. What’s does Girl Talk think he’s doing? Gillis grins, aw-shucks style: “Putting Elton John in a headlock and pouring beer on him.”
Though Girl Talk is featured throughout RiP, this is no bio-pic. Gaylor isn’t shy about his intentions, explaining early on that he’s making “a film about a war of ideas. The Internet is the battleground.” If more ink—or Web space—than blood is being shed, it’s not because this fight lacks issues. Count the buzz words that electrify the film: Copyright, Copyleft, intellectual property, Creative Commons, Public Domain vs. Private Interest, Fair Use and Fair Dealing.
Biomedical engineer turned live-performance sensation Girl Talk, has received immense commercial and critical success for his mind-blowing sample-based music. Utilizing technical expertise and a ferocious creative streak, Girl Talk repositions popular music to create a wild and edgy dialogue between artists from all genres and eras. But are his practices legal? Do his methods of frenetic appropriation embrace collaboration in its purest sense? Or are they infractions of creative integrity and violations of copyright?
To determine between fair use and actual copyright infringement, judges and juries look at a variety of factors, such as: the length of the use, the purpose of the use, and more generally, whether the use is "transformative." A transformative use basically refers to a quotation in which you've changed the context, or altered the original sufficiently to transform it into something new. This concept has played an increasingly important role in fair use decisions of the past 20 years by courts.
And there's no reason why a court, judge, or jury couldn't consider an audio sample transformative use. But no sampling lawsuit in which the defendant has argued for fair use has ever reached a decision stage. In every instance, the defendant has settled out of court--because the case would probably go all the way to the Supreme Court, and it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get to a decision. It's a much better financial decision to go ahead and work out the licensing deal before the record's released.
What Girl Talk does, is take beats and enhances certain aspects of audio to change the original meaning of the song and create a new unique way in which it is used and interpreted. Girl Talk uses songs from Elton John, Pitbull, The Cure, The Beatles, and more. Every artist who has samples online is considered for Girl Talk to use and create new songs off of.
But it gets way more complicated when you start sampling songs that contain samples, which is increasingly the case today. If you wanted to sample, say, "Fight the Power" by Public Enemy—well, that song contains 20 samples. You'd have to get permission from Def Jam, which owns the sound recording rights, and then Public Enemy's song publisher. Then you'd have to go to the other 20 song publishers and get permission to use the song—it creates kind of a domino effect. This licensing logjam is only going to get worse and worse and worse as people increasingly sample the recent past, since that recent past is already a collage. It just becomes impossible to do all these clearances.
Samples on average are not the entire song, merely a chorus or an introduction of the song. For example, iTunes allows users to listen to the first minute and thirty seconds of a song to allow the buyer to determine if they want to purchase the song or identify if it’s the song the person was looking for. Girl Talk uses these snip-its of the songs in his mash-ups. Other times, if the artist posts a sample of their song online such as on their website, blog, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, or other virtual medium, Girl Talk uses those snip-its to compose his new song.
Mr. Gillis’s music is pulled from more sources than most hip-hop hits, which often use a loop of music taken from a single song. But unlike most D.J.’s who see themselves as artists, Mr. Gillis does not radically reconfigure songs or search out obscure samples. Instead he mixes clips of contemporary hip-hop artists like Jay-Z and OutKast with time-tested rock riffs from groups like Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and AC/DC. The first track on “Feed the Animals,” “Play Your Part (Pt. 1),” starts with a sample of a rap song by UGK and the ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-DUM rhythm of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin,’ ” among other things. At times the album sounds like a cleverly programmed K-tel compilation that presents catchy riffs instead of full songs, and part of the fun is recognizing familiar sounds in a new context.
Girl Talk, whose real name is Gregg Gillis, makes danceable musical collages out of short clips from other people’s songs; there are more than 300 samples on “Feed the Animals,” the album he released online at illegalart.net in June. He doesn’t get the permission of the composers to use these samples, as United States copyright law mostly requires, because he maintains that the brief snippets he works with are covered by copyright law’s “fair use” principle (and perhaps because doing so would be prohibitively expensive).
The real issues are further muddied when words such as “pirated,” “stolen,” “infringers” etc are used. The bottom line really, is that our current copyright laws need to be updated to take into account how artists are creating new works by mashing up disparate works and then invariably posting those works to the web.
In his film RiP: A Remix Manifesto [which you can watch for free here,] Web activist and filmmaker Brett Gaylor explores the issue of copyright in the information age, and the tension that is created between the producers and users of their work. So, is it piracy or art?
Since Girl Talk tries to create transformative music, the original composition isn’t recognizable, but the length of the sample may be troublesome.
Girl Talk has yet to be sued for copyright infringement, but there is the possibility that he will be. The industries may be hesitant to pursue this matter because if a company were to sue and lose, then there would be a precedent for people to sample artists’ copyrighted material.
Each time Gillis uses another artist’s song without their permission, that use would constitute copyright infringement. If Gillis were sued for infringement, he would most likely argue that his use of their work constitutes a “fair use” and is thus not infringing. In Gillis’s case, the fair use question would come down to whether his use was considered “transformative.” Intelligent minds are in disagreement as to whether or not Gillis would prevail in making a fair use defense. And this debate has been going on for a while now: during law school, I advised another member of my journal on his student note, which dealt with this question.
Girl Talk is considered a mash-up artist. Greg Gillis is the mastermind behind Girl Talk; he is an engineer by day and a famous DJ filling up large venues by night. Gills realized he had a talent for changing songs and enhancing notes when he was fiddling with his laptop. What began as a hobby quickly became a fascination for him. Gillis now tries to express his own messages and desires through music.
Girl Talk is unlike most musical artists. Rather than creating music using instruments/vocals/digital effects like most artists, Girl Talk (whose real name is Gregg Gillis) creates music almost entirely from snippets of other artists’ music. He has gained popularity for his unique ability to take seemingly disparate pieces of music (say, Notorious B.I.G. and Elton John, for example) and combining them in a way that’s clever, interesting, listenable, and–you had to see this coming– danceable.