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Slowed-Down Bieber: A Glacial Victory for Fair Use

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Though he is the preeminent trending topic, it was the first and probably last time I'll ever tweet about Justin Bieber from the Free Music Archive's account. But I just had to on the occasion that multiple major labels have lent their support to a hugely popular (and quite excellent) 800%-slower remix of Beiber's song "U Smile". This, despite the fact that it is arguably, according to Billboard, "an infringement of both the sound recording (owned by Universal’s Island Records) and the musical composition (owned by both UMG and EMI)." I mean, with the same free open source program that producer Nick Pittsinger aka Shamantis used to create this 30-minute glacial epic, it could just as easily be shrunk back into the actual song.


If you just listen, clearly this is a transformative work that meets the conditions for Fair Use. But Fair Use has yet to reconcile with US laws pertaining to sound recordings; the influential Bridgeport ruling seems to imply that there is no such thing as fair use when it comes to recorded music. Meanwhile, the file is hosted by Soundcloud in Germany, one of many countries where "fair use" doesn't even exist! Fortunately a court in Germany did recently decide that a 2-second Kraftwerk sample twisted beyond all recognition can be legal if the result is "substantially different" [BBC / Techdirt]).

Fortunately, there was no need for the law in the Bieber scenario, as it clearly stood to benefit all parties. Beiber tweeted about it, and this new form of public announcement from our young king of tweet-pop declared it to be good, because he stands to benefit. And why not? The slow version shines an interesting light on Bieber's own music for new fans (and Twitter followers) who now have a much deeper appreciation for his music, and went on to spread the word about the remix -- creating a stir that is invaluable in our increasingly fragmented Attention Economy. I wouldn't even be shocked if this was all a big publicity stunt from Bieber's label.

In cases like these (#musicblogocide, for example) I often recall Lawrence Lessig's chart describing the law as one of four forces that impact reality. Our society and the structures of the music industry are changing rapidly. Soon -- with any luck -- remixes like this, which clearly just draw attention to the artist in a purely noncommcercial environment, may even be declared legal! Or at the very least, we should be able to publicly acknowledge that there are certain noncommercial forums for shared creativity where the law need not interfere. Transformative remixes are already kind of impossible to stop, and seem to stand to everyone's benefit. Quite an artistic and politicized statement by Free Culture's new hero, Shamantis.

Maybe even Prince will come around to this. Or -- since he's already declared the end of the Internet -- maybe he'll simply sit back and let his music (and the people who love it) take care of spreading the word on his behalf.