Why deadmau5 claiming “Sorry” is a ripoff is bad for musicians — and himself

Getting to the nitty gritty

Time can’t move fast enough for me on this one. I want to know what happens — will Skrillex, Justin Bieber, Bloodpop, Justin, and Julia respond in court to the lawsuit filed by White Hinterland? Will there be an out of court settlement? If there is, will anybody actually say anything, or will it be a “Both parties agree there was a disagreement” like happened over at Cruise?

There’s a reason I tend to obsess over Copyright Law in the United States, and it’s personal. Before I was serious about music, I was serious about writing (and still am to be honest). The backbone of writing for profit is Copyright, in that putting together a composition is worth compensation — no two writers are the same, even in a low form like Journalism where the point is to be “objective” and “stick to the facts.” Journalists might complain about that backhand, but it’s just reality on the scale of art.

Copyright is also one of the most illogical, fuzzy, and unpredictable aspects of US law.

In music, Copyright offers limited protections — think of it as a stamp on finished product first and foremost. It’s like looking at a finished statue and saying, “Yep, that’s a statue of a naked person.” How that statue was created, the techniques, the type of stone used, or the color of it are aspects that Copyright doesn’t give protection in the basic sense. The method(s) of achieving a final product are of minimal concern.

But in music, we run across sampling and the accusation by White Hinterland that the song “Sorry” exploits “Ring the Bell.” The lawsuit itself states that “Sorry” uses an unsanctioned sample from “Ring the Bell” — let’s get that straight. The lawsuit says that Skrillex and company lifted a piece of a finished product and used it in theirs.

Copyright is very clear about that: Using a finished piece in something new means the original creator has rights to approve, deny, or approve at a cost.

But, as the embedded video by Skrillex shows, it’s most clearly not a sample of “Ring the Bell.” That, right away, shoots down the claim that it’s violating White Hinterland’s Copyright on the finished music product. What’s left is the far weaker — legally speaking — grounds to claim that “Sorry” still infringes on “Ring the Bell.”

This is where deadmau5 comes into it

It’s no secret that deadmau5 and Skrillex had a falling out some time ago, and every 6 months or so they tend to trade jabs on Twitter. When White Hinterland filed the lawsuit, deadmau5 went off on the subject, basically relishing in the accusation of theft and being a snide “expert” whenever somebody dared to contradict him. In his opinion, it was a ripoff, and she should “bleed them dry” with the lawsuit.

We’re all friends here

But…it’s not a sample, and, let’s look closely here, it’s not even the same notes in the melody. He’s wrong. And it’s bad for musicians for him to be so vocally wrong about how composition and Copyright work.

So I pulled out my set of claws and swiped at deadmau5 on Twitter the way he treats other people, and included evidence of why he was wrong (for Educational purposes I know these snippets pass the Four Factor test for Fair Use so I grabbed/slowed/exported from Ableton Live):

Headphones work best but this is obvious

…and instead of responding to the recording showing that the notes aren’t the same, he blocked me. Shocker, right?

Apparently Meowingtons has his tongue

Here’s the deal though: deadmau5 claiming that the melody is a ripoff instead of a coincidence puts a lot of other music compositions in jeopardy. I’m not a doom saying type of guy, and honestly don’t think the “Blurred Lines” verdict screwed up anything in the legal and creative sense, but this is just fucking nuts! Of all people, deadmau5 should think long and hard about how Copyright protects even minimal melodic compositions — other than Strobe, the bulk of deadmau5 tracks have very limited range.

Claiming “Sorry” infringes on “Ring the Bell” would make that range a very lucrative target for shakedown type accusations. Easier to settle than to fight, right? Well, I think from time to time, sure — like the Sam Smith and Tom Petty overlap, where the terms weren’t disclosed publicly but writing credit certainly was. That’s just being polite.

What’s not polite is filing a lawsuit and taking to Social Media trying to stir up sympathy and emotions when the facts are light. I’ve seen it before, and it made me mad back then. Really mad.

GoldiBlox versus The Beastie Boys

Anybody else remember this one? It got a lot of coverage for a while, because GoldiBlox was trying to win a contest to get their commercial played during the Super Bowl that year. High stakes!

In pursuit of that goal, the GoldiBlox commercial used a version of the song “Girls” by The Beastie Boys with the lyrics changed. When a lawyer from The Beastie Boys got in contact with GoldiBlox asking what was up — on his deathbed Adam Yauch requested no use of songs in commercials — GoldiBlox filed a lawsuit to get a judge to declare Fair Use…and oh boy, was there a whole narrative to go with it.

Poor little start-up trying to encourage girls to become engineers being picked on by The Beastie Boys!”

No, really, that was the play that got spun for a while. Eventually The Beastie Boys let their lawyers loose on GoldiBlox — after years of fighting sampling battles in court I’m pretty sure The Beastie Boys have some great contacts — and wrote an open letter talking about how shitty it was to lift their song and then sue them when they asked about it. Do you remember the ending to the story?

GoldiBlox fired its original legal team. They settled for an undisclosed amount to be donated to girls education causes. Also, GoldiBlox had to put this on their website:

We sincerely apologize for any negative impact our actions may have had on the Beastie Boys. We never intended to cast the band in a negative light and we regret putting them in a position to defend themselves when they had done nothing wrong.
As engineers and builders of intellectual property, we understand an artist’s desire to have his or her work treated with respect. We should have reached out to the band before using their music in the video.
We know this is only one of the many mistakes we’re bound to make as we grow our business. The great thing about mistakes is how much you can learn from them. As trying as this experience was, we have learned a valuable lesson. From now on, we will secure the proper rights and permissions in advance of any promotions, and we advise any other young company to do the same.

Pretty fucking strong eh? I would’ve liked the case to go through the court system and establish some more firm interpretations of Copyright in that case, but hey, it wasn’t my money. As a musician, I think The Beastie Boys won one for all of us.

deadmau5, on the other hand, is cutting off his nose to spite his face. He might as well toss in accusations that vaccines cause autism too. It’s okay to be stupid in private, but it’s another thing to go around trying to infect other people with it.

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