Girl Talk

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

One of the most polarizing topics within the music industry today is the battle over copyright law, more specifically the murky waters of fair use. No figure has been more relevant in this discussion than the mash up artist, Greg Gillis, known by his stage name, Girl Talk.

Girl Talk has described his art as “sample based collage music”, which in its most basic deconstruction, is the lead vocal from a song pulled out of its context and set against a backdrop of rhythms and refrains from other songs. Every sound heard on a Girl Talk record is taken from another song. The problem is Greg Gillis, aka Girl Talk, hasn't received permission to use any of them. Musically, the result is a dizzying and chaotic pastiche of infectious dance songs, and while it has all the kids buzzing, it raises unique questions about copyright law, questions that either expose its outdated nature or reveal where it's being taken advantage of. It all depends on which side of the argument you may fall.

By no means is sample-based music a new legal issue for the industry. Hip hop has been pushing that envelope for a long time now, most notably with Danger Mouse's 2004 bootleg The Grey Album, which illegally mashed up The Beatles' White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album. However with Girl Talk's music, the legal stakes are remarkably high because of the sheer amount of samples he uses. On his last record, Feed the Animals, Girl Talk used over 300 samples. If all of these were properly cleared it would require over 600 contract negotiations, one with the publisher and one with the copyright owner. And of course multiple writers would mean even more. Each 3-minute Girl Talk song has an average of 21 samples. The legal fees alone for the 16 track album would make any profit unlikely. Girl Talk has skirted the legal issues of clearance by appealing to the Fair Use Doctrine and its unspecific outlines.

Fair Use is a US copyright law that allows for a work to be used without permission for purposes “such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.” Fair Use is what allows critics to play snippets of what they are reviewing without having to negotiate approval each time. With Girl Talk, each of his samples are so short and the end result of his music is so different from the original versions, that he asserts his music is protected by this doctrine.

Opponents of this argument cite that Fair Use is intended only when commenting on or studying copyrighted material; it is not a permission slip to incorporate that material into your own work. Opponents call Girl Talk's music a derivation of the work he is sampling and therefore requires the permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher. For them, Girl Talk's music is a clear example of how Fair Use is being abused.

Meanwhile, advocates of copyright reform, known as the “copyleft”, are using Girl Talk to point out the antiquated nature of the law. The question for them is: legally “does this music not have a right to exist”? They believe the law is ultimately stifling to new forms of creativity, which move the culture forward. They contend all creativity has a past and the shift in technology deserves a shift in our legal perspective. Otherwise we hinder new and burgeoning forms of art. Their only hope is that when this issue, undoubtedly, makes its way into the courts, a precedent will be set that allows artists like Girl Talk to mash and re-mash to their heart's content.

To learn more about Girl Talk and the issues that surround the artist, check out the fabulous new documentary by Brett Gaylor, called Rip! A Remix Manifesto. You can see chapters of the film, and comment on the issues of copyright by logging onto

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Banner image: Rip: A Remix Manifesto