Michael Jackson, Pirate Remixer

from the but-of-course dept

We always hear stories about how copyright has to be protected to “protect the artists,” and yet time and time again we learn that some of the biggest name artists will often copy directly from each other without credit or payment. It’s the way music is made. In James Boyle’s excellent book, The Public Domain, there’s a really fantastic chapter giving plenty of examples of this in practice. However, Rob Hyndman recently pointed us to another such example, found via Wikipedia, but backed up via its sources of course. The discussion? It’s about where Michael Jackson’s famous song Billie Jean came from. Turns out, Jackson himself admitted to copying the bass line directly from a Hall and Oates song:

According to Daryl Hall, when Jackson was recording ?We Are the World,? Jackson approached him and admitted to lifting the bass line for “Billie Jean” from a Hall and Oates song (apparently referring to Hall?s “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” from the 1981 album Private Eyes): “Michael Jackson once said directly to me that he hoped I didn’t mind that he copped that groove.”

Of course, the really amusing part? Hall responded to Jackson… by telling him he had done the same thing himself to get that bassline in the first place! “It’s something we all do,” Hall later explained.

Indeed. And yet, under today’s laws, it’s still considered infringement, and we still hear people looking down on “remixing” or people who create works in this manner, by building on the works of others. And yet, this is one of the most successful pop songs of all time. And the bass was a big part of that. Elsewhere in the Wikipedia article, there’s a discussion of how the producer of the song, Quincy Jones, hated the song, and specifically the bass line. Yet Jackson insisted that the bass line was the key to the song, and the two of them fought over it until Jackson won. And the bassline was completely copied.

It’s stories like this that make us wonder how people can say with a straight face that copying something can’t help to create something new.

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Comments on “Michael Jackson, Pirate Remixer”

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Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Mech v. Authorship?

There is a difference though between playing something you’ve heard before (it’s the bread and butter of blues) and taking the actual recording someone else made and splicing it into your own song.

Splicing recordings into new songs is the bread and butter of countless genres today… There may be a technical and legal difference, but I don’t think there is a moral or cultural one.

Richard (profile) says:

Mech v. Authorship?

There is a difference though between playing something you’ve heard before (it’s the bread and butter of blues) and taking the actual recording someone else made and splicing it into your own song.

This difference is purely one of “sweat of the brow”.

This difference is relevant in discussions of copyright.

No! it clearly isn’t since sweat of the brow does not attract copyright.

Richard (profile) says:

Mech v. Authorship?

There is a huge difference between copying the “groove” in your own performance, and just lifting someone else’s performance.

Copyright law does not make that difference. Many artists have been successfully sued for “copying the groove” – George Harrison (My Sweet Lord) springs to mind immediately.

In copyright law the creative element is the important part – not the purely mechanical process of playing the notes.

What you are trying to do is to separate those who have the mechanical skill of playing from those who do not – however this was always an inappropriate distinction as there are great composers who never had the skill tho play (e.g. Berlioz) and in recent years technology has rendered the mechanical skills unnecessary.

These days the chief virtue of the mechanical skills of playing music is in the pleasure it give the performer him/herself and the social interaction it creates in a live music setting.

Дмитрий (user link) says:


колесо изобретено давно и вообще не человеком ,а природой
мы люди разумные с копировали и совершенствуем колесо и интернет и Wikipedi и авторов от природы которых нам подсказывают свыше.Я за авторство как подлинник (платформа),я за совершенствование как жизнь моя.

The Moondoggie says:

Re: Re: технологии

No. He should try and learn english. We don’t know what he is talking about and Google Translate sucks cock.

This is how his post looks like through Google translate:

“invented the wheel for a long time, and no man, and nature
we are people with a reasonable copying and improving the wheel and the Internet and Wikipedi and authors on the nature of which we suggest svyshe.Ya for authorship as the original (platform), I like to improve my life.”

Kevin (profile) says:

Just imagine

Can one imagine if the current ridiculous patent and copyright had existed when the first person made a brick and designed a house we would all be paying his/her ancestors and not be allowed to vary from the original design.
Imagine if Mozart did what is done today. No orchestra would be allowed to stray from his original score and orchestra set up. And so on.
The whole issue is just ridiculous.
I’m still getting over the copyright owner of the Teddy Bear Song winning a case against Men At Work for using a part of the nursery song in Down Under. a part that no matter how often I listen I cannot identify that part.
Copyright should only apply to the whole song and only the original arrangement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mech v. Authorship?

“Copyright law does not make that difference. Many artists have been successfully sued for “copying the groove” – George Harrison (My Sweet Lord) springs to mind immediately.”

Again, that wasn’t a copy of a groove, that was a copy of a song (chord progression, instrumentation, etc) A simple bass line, especially one that isn’t particularly unique, isn’t something that is going to stand up to much of copyright item in and of itself.

In fact, I would say that for the general public, they would be entirely unable to pick out what would make those songs similar, which sums it up.

” in recent years technology has rendered the mechanical skills unnecessary.”

The difference is that those without mechanical skills (Hi Marcus!) are using other people’s performances as their own work. For me, that crosses a big line. If you like something, AT LEAST play it yourself, or hire someone to play it for you. Don’t just copy someone else’s performance. That is lazy as it comes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mech v. Authorship?

Sweat of the brow isn’t the issue, not in the least. It’s a question of a completed copyright work.

Taking a copyright work and using it without permission is against the law. It’s also as lazy as fuck (right Marcus?). Anyone can do it.

Hearing someone play a bass line, and then playing a similar progression yourself isn’t in itself generally a violation of copyright alone. It tends to come as a combination of things.

It’s why 100 songs can have a similar bass line and not violate each other – but the one song that just takes a sample of another one would.

Anonymous Coward says:

Mech v. Authorship?

Copy and pasting MIDI arrangements and editing them are not creative process?

Like photo editing?

A musician should build his own instrument and not use the knowledge and skill of others to make his music then? Should all musicians pay the makers of their instruments everytime they make a dime? Maybe a levy on music should be done by the instruments manufacturers since those instruments are essential for the creation of music, without them music would just not sound the same.

Anonymous Coward says:

give me a break

enough with the pro-piracy nonsense. While MJ and many other artists take bits and pieces from others works, they turn it into something distinctively their own. MJ’s music is clearly his own distinct style. On the other hand, completely copying works in their entirety is a whole other matter, stop trying to morally justify your blatant theft.

Anonymous Coward says:

give me a break

Are you serious? There are quite a few bands/musician’s that have been sued for copyrights when they sampled and made something distinctly their own.

I think one of the first cases was U2 vs. Negitivland. It’s ok for a band with a label that has deep pockets and an army of lawyers. It’s not ok for a small independent band. That’s the only difference.

Rock’n roll wouldn’t exist without using southern blues – and often, a complete song, melody, harmony with a change of instrumentation and tempo, The Rolling Stones early recordings as an example.

“Good artist’s copy, GREAT artist’s steal” — Picasso and Steve Jobs

Creativity does not exist in a vaccum.

Anonymous Coward says:

What an alarmist headline. Even considering the content of the article, Jackson would not have been considered a pirate, since I have rarely heard of sample-based artists being referred to as such. On top of that, it’s not a sample. He replayed and re-recorded the bass line so it’s not a remix. (Also, when did MJ become a mix engineer? Did he know how to use a compressor? I seem to remember him as a performer, not the guy behind the console.)

So basically we have “NEWSFLASH: Michael Jackson was influenced by something.” I guess that doesn’t reel in the views, though.

Listening to tech blogs mischaracterize music… must be as annoying as listening to label employees talk about technology.

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