There’s been a lot of hoo-hah going on over the last month about DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, a remix of Jay Z's Black Album with the Beatles' White Album. It’s obviously illegal, but what is most interesting to me is the amount of commentary suggesting it is the most innovative thing to happen to the music business lately, an instant classic, and might even be the album of the year.
Remixes have been becoming a bigger and bigger phenomenon over recent years, being predominantly traded over peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa and sold on Ebay. Jay-Z's engineer, Young Guru, told MTV.com last month that the rapper released a words-only version of The Black Album so DJs could "remix the hell out of it." The Beatles music, however, is apparently off-limits.
While it is totally standard practice for musicians to record cover versions of another artist’s songs as long as they pay the artist a standard royalty fee, sampling and remixing are a different matter. As Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain notes, that smacks of "copyright as a means of control, rather than a means of profit."
In the American legal tradition, he notes, copyright is seen as a way to make sure innovators get paid for their work, not to keep others from being creative. “So long as there's money to be made, it's a negotiation," he said. "There's not a lot of excitement for further downstream innovation being blocked. Nobody wants to see that."