Music Licensing Comes Late to the Mash-Up Party

Rock 'n' roll has always been about rebellion. And rebellion sells.

The music industry is well aware of this and has struggled mightily to co-opt most of the hot, countercultural phenomena that bubble up. Record labels now leak their own singles into file-sharing networks and systematically sign nominally indie bands to lucrative deals.

So how do musicians rebel when rebellion itself is a commodity?

A DJ known as Girl Talk is showing us how. Girl Talk (real name: Greg Gillis) has put together an album of "mash-ups" that has taken the world by storm.

To make a mash-up, a DJ splices together the vocal a cappella track from one song over the instrumental track from another. Girl Talk mixes audio tracks from dozens of songs, using artists from the Beatles to Beyonce, in the course of a single song. He has remixed songs for Beck and is opening for him at various European concert dates.

"Initially there's a lot of novelty appeal," Gillis said, on his way back home from his day job as an engineer. "I'm not a music theorist, but it's amazing how many songs are in the same key. A Kansas song will fit over a Chris Brown beat, and it'll sound perfect."

"It's a very punk style," Gillis said. "All of a sudden you can be manipulating these celebrities doing whatever you want."

Mash-Ups Go Back Decades

Though mash-ups may be the ultimate media age statement, the concept is nothing new. As Gillis pointed out, mash-ups, sampling and rock itself all occupy different points on the spectrum of musical borrowing.

As early as the '70s, hip-hop DJs like Grandmaster Flash mixed together hip-hop and house tracks in clubs. In the '90s, aided by technology and a burgeoning DJ scene, especially in the United Kingdom, DJs like Coldcut and DJ Shadow brought mash-ups into the future with full-length studio albums involving heavily sampling and remixing. These albums put Diddy's chart-topping, sample-based singles to shame in terms of sheer complexity.

The true watershed moment came in 1999, when an Arizona DJ named Z-Trip put out an album called Uneasy Listening. This album stitched together a symphony that included such random variables as Kansas' "Dust in the Wind," Madonna's "Like a Prayer," the Beatles' "Yesterday" and just about everything in between.

With the licensing rights unclear, this album was not exactly easy listening for industry executives who saw the potential for DJs to make big profits. Broadband Internet access made mash-up distribution a force that the industry needed to reckon with.

A Legal Gray Area

In 2004, Dangermouse, who is one-half of pop supergroup Gnarls Barkley, released the infamous "Grey Album," a mash-up of Jay-Z's gruffly plaintive "Black Album" and the Beatles soul-searching "White Album."

"A lot of college kids could relate because everyone knew that Jay-Z album," Gillis said of the "Grey Album's" popularity. "It's a sign of the times, that you're messing with these untouchable figures, the Beatles, and mixing them with the most pop thing out there, hip-hop."

But record labels urged that Dangermouse was also messing with the law. Capitol Records, the Beatles' label, sent a nasty cease-and-desist letter to Dangermouse, blaming him for the mass distribution that had resulted from his initial, allegedly limited press of several thousand copies for his friends and interested parties.

But, as Dangermouse seemed to recognize, the alleged illegality of his music only helped to garner attention. Fan sites even hosted a "Grey Tuesday," during which they put the whole album online for free download. With his talents on full display, Dangermouse went on to greater and more mainstream success, even appearing on the Grammys earlier this year.

Making the Copyright Laws Work

Mash-ups may soon be domesticated as well. The first fully licensed, industry legit mash-up album came out in the United Kingdom last month.

DJs are realizing that the copyright laws may actually help their cause. Sophisticated mash-ups that rise to the level of genuinely new art may actually fall into an exception to the usual licensing rules.

Under the fair use exception to copyright law, artists can use someone else's work for free if they fully transform it into something new. It's a high bar to meet this standard of "transformative," rather than merely "derivative" use, but it looks like DJs may be willing to try.

Additionally, courts dealing with copyright suits look at the economic effects of copying: If the unlicensed use wouldn't possibly hurt the market for the original, it's more likely to be deemed as fair use.

And this brings us back to Gillis and his DJ alter ego, Girl Talk, who has thus far evaded legal worries. Though he could not discuss the legal nature of his music, Gillis said the entire concept of a mash-up, or sampling, created a lot of gray areas in terms of art and originality.

"A lot of people are starting to integrate samples with original instrumentation. If you take a track and rearrange the notes, is that a mash-up or are you sampling?" he asked. "'Sampling' is such a vague term, and mash-up is an almost an unfortunate term because it confuses the issue."

Even if the perception of illegality and sticking it to industry giants (labels and artists) is an important part of the mash-up appeal, it also appears that Girl Talk has some friends in high places -- like Capitol Hill. His rabid success drove Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., to testify that music licensing in an age of mash-ups has to evolve.

As a DJ, I can tell you that audiences are far from tired of mash-ups and a simpler system of permissions would only help the genre. But I wonder whether mash-ups will lose some of their edge once the law -- and the industry -- let them be.

ABC News Contributor Michael Smith provides a variety of DJ and music services to a number of International Brands and Customers. To hear some mash-ups he has recently worked on, check out and click on the Party Music stream.