If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of something called “The Swinger.” It’s a piece of Python code that debuted at the San Francisco Music Hack Day a few weeks ago, which uses The Echo Nest‘s remix software to automagically stretch and shorten beats in a song to give it that swing. It went massively viral—over the last few days, somewhere north of a million people listened to these “swing” versions.
Naturally, I decided to get in on the fun – you can hear my contribution to the meme, a swing version of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” below. I uploaded it to SoundCloud, which asks you what kind of licensing you want to use – all rights reserved, a Creative Commons license, or no rights reserved – and it stopped me cold.
The legal status of remixes and sampling is grey, to say the least, with differing rulings on whether it constitutes, for example, transformative use. One solution would be compulsory licensing for remixing and sampling, similar to what currently exists for covers (this is why the Sex Pistols were Sid Vicious was able to cover “My Way” – unhappy though he was, Paul Anka had no legal recourse).
Calls to address this aren’t new, of course (Lawrence Lessig is the most vocal advocate). But what really struck me over the last few days is how urgent the need for legislation is getting, given the rapid rise of tools that let even musical and programming ignoramuses like me create remixes. The next iTunes is probably going to look a lot more like Google Picasa, since the tools that are the musical equivalent of crop, resize, or ‘remove redeye’ are pretty much on our doorstep—simple, painless and requiring no special skills or expensive software. It’s past time for the laws to catch up.
EDIT: Sid Vicious, not the Sex Pistols. Thanks to Martin Packer for the correction.
Thanks to Quinn Norton and Ethan Hein for excellent discussions on the legal issues surrounding remixing. And a very mild disclaimer of a collaborative relationship with the fine folks at The Echo Nest.