Unauthorized Remix Improves On Landmark Unauthorized Mashup, The Grey Album

from the look-how-culture-works dept

This is a story of massive infringement upon infringement. Or it’s a story about culture and building awesome things from the building blocks others helped put together. Or both — which really should say something about copyright laws today. It was nearly nine years ago that EMI went completely off the rails in trying to threaten everyone for The Grey Album — the first truly popular mashup album. Put together by the producer Danger Mouse, The Grey Album used Jay-Z’s vocals from The Black Album and mashed them up with music samples entirely from the Beatles The White Album — and it actually worked.

Jay-Z has since referred to it as “genius” and expressed how honored he was to see it happen. EMI, which controlled the Beatles’ rights, felt differently, sending cease-and-desist letters to tons of sites that had the mp3s. In response, folks on the internet planned Grey Tuesday for February 24th, 2004 — a day of digital civil disobedience, where lots of sites would distribute the mashup album. EMI, still not understanding what it was dealing with, sent off more cease-and-desist letters to any site that had indicated that it would participate. End result? Even more interest in the whole thing.

Of course, since then, Danger Mouse has gone on to be an in-demand guy in the recording industry (among other things, he’s one-half of Gnarls Barkley, who of course had a massive hit with the song “Crazy” a few years ago). EMI later admitted that The Grey Album didn’t “harm” them at all, but still defended the decision arguing, pointlessly, “it’s not a question of damage, it’s a question of rights.”

Given all that, one has to wonder what EMI thinks of another top industry guy, recording engineer John Stewart (who’s worked with Kanye West, Big Boi and John Legend), who has remastered the audio on The Grey Album, arguing that he could do a better job — and the early reviews seem to agree. As noted in the Forbes article linked above:

Revisiting The Grey Album with an expert ear gave Stewart the ability to pinpoint its audio flaws, and his professional experience gave him the agency to do something about it. Stewart says he first got the idea to remaster The Grey Album on Wednesday, Nov. 21, but it didn’t really click until that Saturday. On Sunday he set out to improve the album’s audio, tinkering with various faders in ProTools until he achieved the desired effect: “I just kind of put the sonics on steroids,” he says.

He then put the whole thing up on SoundCloud and Mediafire, where it’s getting plenty of listens and downloads.

But, of course, as Slate points out: this is still an “unauthorized” work. And even though there’s almost certainly no “harm,” has EMI (now owned by Universal) finally understood that it makes sense to let these things go?

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Comments on “Unauthorized Remix Improves On Landmark Unauthorized Mashup, The Grey Album”

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PaulT (profile) says:

“has EMI (now owned by Universal) finally understood that it makes sense to let these things go?”

Part of me hopes so. Part of me fears that this is going to be the excuse that this will be the excuse those people need to try and shut down Soundcloud – a service which seems to have had the audacity to be successful at giving independent musicians a platform while actually understanding social media. They can’t have that kind of competition, especially if it’s even tangentially related to something that might possibly be seen as infringing, right?

Anonymous Coward says:


Isn’t it more of a question about rights getting eroded? IIRC the problem is that if they know about something they see as illegal, but lets them do it anyway, they will loose quite a lot of possible arguments in future cases where they feel violated. While I agree that it is stupid to sue for almost nothing there is some legal reasoning to it. That they could send a mail declaring a free license for the use is the alternative and a far better one. However, they probably feel that will weaken their negotiation position with real licensees.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

My understanding is that this “defend it or lose it” concern you speak of is applicable to trademark law, but not copyright or patent law. You can choose not to exercise your right to sue for one infringement, and it doesn’t affect your ability to sue for any other. Otherwise the RIAA wouldn’t have had to bring suit against every individual U.S. file-sharer they knew about, rather than just the two easy targets they picked to make an example of.

The theory that the leverage for demanding paid (not “real”) licenses would be undermined by giving away free ones is easily disproved by looking at the realm of copyright where free licenses are routinely given away in advance for noncommercial, individual use, and paid licenses are subject to a fee: computer software. It works out just fine there, even for commercial companies. Certainly there’s a sizable segment of users who flout the licensing requirements, but software makers still profit from those who don’t.

out_of_the_blue says:


Soundcloud was letting me download it for free — though I stopped it halfway — so where does it fit into any “monetizing” scheme? Just try selling it; entirely different legal situation.

2nd (assuming answer to first is promotes re-mixer), the usual question: how does one get the initial publicity so it’s widely noticed? IF you could distill the formula for that, I’d be impressed, but if it’s just luck and the re-mixer’s “networking” efforts, phooey, who needs YOU, MIke? Aren’t even any T-shirts being sold!

3rd, why do you think this matters? What revelation is here? Far as you’ve shown, this is standard copyright usage: EMI doesn’t like it (and you clearly like sticking your tongue out at EMI), no news there, but until someone tries getting money from it, is technically “legal”, just feeble.

Don’t let internet pioneer Mike “Streisand Effect” Masnick be forgotten on his own blog!
Think how we’d all be better off if he’d never made his one quip!

PaulT (profile) says:


“Soundcloud was letting me download it for free — though I stopped it halfway — so where does it fit into any “monetizing” scheme? “

Reading the FAQs on the site might help with this and other questions, as well as trying to use common sense and realising that it’s possible to monetise indirectly. But, you generally demonstrate that the idea of being able to get paid for something despite there being a free version available is still alien to you despite the examples proving otherwise regularly discussed.

As for your other points, they either consist of total idiocy that’s been debunked the last couple of hundred times you posted it (t-shirt? Please…), a total lack of understanding about how Soundcloud is actually used (don’t you *know* any musicians on social media, or at least follow some?) as well as a total lack of any intelligent thought about how things work before you start bashing away at your keyboard like the proverbial monkey you are.

I have to hand it to you though – you at least seem to have actually read the article before responding this time. It’s a start… although I do wonder if you only did so because you got some free music out of it (oh, the irony!).

Are you ever going to explain what that stupid wikipedia link is meant to achieve, btw? It still makes no sense that you’re trying to associate Mike with a comment he openly made that doesn’t show him in any negative light whatsoever.

Anonymous Coward says:

But, of course, as Slate points out: this is still an “unauthorized” work. And even though there’s almost certainly no “harm,” has EMI (now owned by Universal) finally understood that it makes sense to let these things go?

Yes, and we are so perfect and awesome that we are willing to post it here–even after acknowledging that it’s infringing. Fuck them! We know what’s best for everyone else. We can do every single other person’s job better than they can. And you know we’re the best and smartest because we have a blog where we shred everyone we hate–which is everyone else. But just don’t question us about even the slightest thing that we believe in. We don’t discuss our own beliefs. We go crazy and do everything within our power to tear apart anyone who tries to start a conversation about our beliefs. We don’t discuss our own beliefs. We just tear apart everyone else’s. We are Techdirt. We are the fucking best ever.

Ben Rynderman says:

Another interesting element...

There’s another interesting element here, Mike.

This isn’t actually a remix, it’s a remaster. The engineer in question has altered the EQ, Compression, levels and frequency responses of the audio files in question (not the source elements, but the whole finished “Grey Album” files.) While this doesn’t alter the songs within the recording, it changes the recordings themselves.

From a copyright perspective, is this still the same album? The songs within the recording (albeit illegal mashups) are still there, but are these the same master recordings? An audio analyst would tell you that they are fundamentally different…

Is it conceivable that we could remaster the audio on an album and claim it as a new recording?

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