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Why Doesn’t Girl Talk Allow Commercial Use?

[This originally appeared on Techdirt.]

Legal trouble for Girl Talk — an artist named Greg Gillis who released a “mash up” album using the pay what you want model — is almost inevitable, but the situation gets even more interesting when you consider how the music is licensed. Girl Talk uses a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license for Feed the Animals, even though the songs on the album were made by using hundreds samples from other artists. Gillis claims his songs are fair use on the basis of being transformative and because the clips used are very short.

Aside from potential legal claims over the license if the fair use defense fails, why would Gillis — an artist making commercial use of samples from others — put a noncommercial restriction on his work? It seems a bit hypocritical. Granted, he does claim that “the CC license does not interfere with the rights you have under the fair use doctrine, which gives you permission to make certain uses of the work even for commercial purposes,” but is the noncommercial restriction for other uses really necessary?

First of all, as Mike Masnick pointed out in his critique of a noncommercial copyright, the distinction between commercial and noncommercial use is extremely blurry. Equally blurry in this case is the distinction between transformative and non-transformative use. At what point exactly does a derivative work become transformative? But, more importantly, Mike asks “if someone else is able to do something commercially useful with my content, why should that be a problem?” Girl Talk ought to be a perfect example of this, yet Gillis seems to deliberately limit the possibilities through his choice of license.

Why attempt to limit the positive externalities? Maybe some of the artists sampled on the Girl Talk album will really like a song their music appears in and want to include it somehow on a release of their own, make use of it on their website, etc. Should those artists then be required to pay for the use of a song which includes samples of their own music? Maybe, but it seems like respecting “upstream” would help an artist like Gillis maintain a better relationship with the artists from which he’s sampling.

Furthermore, what about people who might do something with the album that’s potentially commercially useful for Girl Talk? For example, if someone were to make an interesting remix or video using Girl Talk’s music , not only would they be required to refrain from commercial use themselves (unless it was fair use), but Gillis would require their permission to make use of it himself. If he had used a copyleft license like the Creative Commons Attibution-Share Alike, both he and any artists making derivative works would have the ability to monetize their efforts. Instead, derivatives are relegated to the realm of the amateur because, with a noncommercial license, the barriers of a permission culture are still intact for artists trying to make a living from their work. One would hope that Greg Gillis, of all artists, might realize the benefits of removing these barriers, especially on commercial use.

[This was largely inspired by a couple Rob Myers posts — Noncommercial ShareAlike Is Not Copyleft and Why The NC Permission Culture Simply Doesn’t Work — which convinced me to license my music under a free license.]

[Read the comments on Techdirt.]

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