“It’s almost like they came on my land and built a house:” Copyright Law, Middle East Protests and the Harlem Shake

Harry Bauer Rodrigues, who records under the name Baauer, has a hit on his hands.  Rocketing from out of nowhere, he's made the cover of Billboard.  All for a dance track that he first released for free back in May 2012 - cobbled together from found objects including unpermissioned samples.

Unexpectedly, Baauer's cut, the Harlem Shake, has become the soundtrack for 2013's biggest viral video meme (so far).

As James C. McKinley Jr. wrote in the March 10th, 2013 New York Times, "the tale of how an obscure dance track containing possible copyright violations rose to the top of pop charts illustrates not only the free-for-all nature of underground dance music but also the power of an Internet fad to create a sudden hit outside the major-label system... "Harlem Shake” has been at the top of the Billboard 100 pop chart for three weeks and as of Friday [March 8th, 2013] had sold 816,000 digital downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It benefited from a recent change in Billboard’s methodology to include YouTube views along with radio airplay and singles sales in its ranking."

In the US, Baauer's song and the silly videos it has inspired have become a fad. And in the Middle East it has apparently begun to be the basis for a new form of online political protest.  One video (below) was recorded outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo headquarters, apparently to register - in a uniquely 21st century way - disillusionment with the slow pace of change in post-Mubarak Egypt.

In addition to marveling at the ongoing web-savvy courage of the protestors in Egypt and Tunisia who are appropriating pop-culture images (props for the Mickey Mouse head) and memes to spread their messages of rebellion around the world, I also wonder how longtime residents of the West Bank feel when a few seconds of a song sample are compared to unlawful settlements?

Which leads us to the question of unpermissioned uses...

As Mr. McKinley writes in the NY Times, Hector Delgado had given up music years ago (to become a preacher in Puerto Rico) when his former manager called to say his voice could be heard on a hit record. And Jayson Musson, a rapper from Philadelphia, received a similar call when a former bandmember called to say his voice could be heard on the track shouting “Do the Harlem Shake!” 

These two (obscure) musicians are now pursuing their rights under current copyright law to get paid.

And, even though the formalities weren't observed when the Harlem Shake was first released, the record label is trying to comply.

"“You don’t have the same checks and balances that you would if it were done by a corporation with a legal department,” ... David Israelite, the president and chief executive of the National Music Publishers Association" told James C. McKinley Jr.

Lawyers for both Delgado and Musson have apparently been negotiating with the Harlem Shake's record label, Mad Decent, over payment for the samples.


Should snippets of their songs, when used in a hit record,  entitle the original artists to cash?

Did Mr. Degado get it right when he compared using a few seconds of a song he recorded in a previous life to building a house on someone else's land?

Is every reuse of someone else's creative work an opportunity to make money?

When, if ever, should the creators of new work be free from an obligation to pay the creators of previous component parts?

If Mr. Delgado deserves to be paid, what about the creators of the first Harlem Shake dance videos - are their additions to the culture (e.g., the helmeted lone dancer suddenly surrounded by a crowd of cavorting dancers) also deserving of compensation?

Should the young people (risking their lives?) on the streets of Tunisia or outside the Muslim Brotherhood offices in Cairo retain copyright counsel in anticipation of paying for the rights they've appropriated?

The joy I get from tracking memes as they travel through different subcultures (pardon the pun) around the world may not be shared by everyone.  But there's no denying the nerd-bliss that I experienced when Taipei National University of the Arts graduate student Valery Cohn shared the following version of The Harlem Shake with me.


I know the following video was posted (by YouTube star Freddie Wong) back in February 2013 - but because of its tie-in to a classic video game (and the fact that it's just so weird), I'll include it here for the few of you haven't seen it.

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