MCA, the DMCA, and stifled collaboration

Paul's Boutique on the turntable
Image credits: Flickr user ikaink
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Earlier this month, the world lost a music pioneer when Adam Yauch, a.k.a “MCA” of the Beastie Boys, succumbed to cancer at the age of 47. A founding member of the Beastie Boys, Yauch expanded upon his success in the music industry to exert his considerable influence and contributions outside music. He had a strong interest in film, which resulted in him directing several of the Boys’ music videos and in 2008 led to him founding Oscilloscope Studios, which produces and promotes independent films. In the 1990s, Yauch adopted Buddhism and began getting involved socially and politically in a variety of charities and activism.

Yauch’s influence across the world was immeasurable--as was the response heard around the world when his death was announced. The evolution of today’s social media meant that within minutes, Twitter and Facebook news streams were awash in recognition of his life, in a variety of ways, as each contributor attempted to find his or her own unique method to show appreciation and/or grief.

One of the most obvious ways people chose to celebrate Yauch’s life was to play and share the music of the Beastie Boys, and one of the easiest and most evident ways to do so was to head over to Turntable.fm, where users share and collaborate, playing music, usually focused on a given theme or genre.  Turntable.fm, as a medium for this sort of activity, seemed to be a terrific venue for this sort of work.

Only it wasn’t.

Shortly after Turntable.fm entered the collective social media ecosystem, it quickly found itself needing to ensure that it didn’t fall afoul of the music industry or the DMCA. To ascertain it was not accused of promoting music piracy, policies were enacted to insulate the fledgling startup. One notable policy was to restrict participation to those within United States. Another was to limit the number of plays per hour of recordings owned or performed by any one act.  

These policies, while disappointing to many, have been, by and large, nonetheless heeded and accepted by the site’s users--at least by those who still had access to the site. However, the pains of such restrictions were realized once again by existing or potential users, fans looking to celebrate and remember Yauch, who found themselves essentially unable to create or participate fully in any sort of Beastie Boys tribute stations. Without any sort of exemption to these policies, the memorial efforts were stymied.

On Twitter, Turntable.fm empathized with fans, but essentially said that their hands were tied.

An ironic footnote in all this is that the Beasties are one of many acts that has sampled and remixed portions of other artists’ works to form new creations. Their ability to mix vocal and instrumental samples alongside their own efforts have been a major staple in their success over the last thirty years.

Furthermore, when masters of their 2011 effort, The Hot Sauce Committee Part Two were found to have been leaked to the public, rather than react with the traditional boilerplate response that one might expect from such stalwarts of the music industry, they instead took what from many accounts would be a daring stance, streaming the album for free from their website.  It should also be noted that, despite the incident and the Boys’ unconventional response to it, Hot Sauce Committee still topped the music charts in sales.

The music industry has been notoriously slow to adapt to the digital revolution and as a result, often comes across as downright combatant to it. In a case such as this, in an era of social media and worldwide interaction, Turntable.fm or any similar service has no time to request any sort of exemption from the industry, and it’s doubful the industry itself could (or would) condone such an activity in an appropriate timeframe.

No one is denying that artists should be able to monetize their own works. However, this is but one more case study where the actions and lobbying efforts of this industry have resulted in the loss of collaboration and squandered the goodwill of the very customers it purports to serve.

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