After The Smoke: Anthony X²(left) and Whuzi (Photo credit: Annie Elizabeth)
There's no getting away from it, the internet is a disputed territory in the grips of its own civil war. Like Spain, 1936. Or the Ruhr, 1921. Or Narnia. On one side, you have the world governments and their close buddies in the intellectual copyright industries, who, if they're not banning the internet from their countries altogether, are discussing how to ruin it for everyone else with bills like SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. On the other hand, you have… well, everyone else. You and I. Us. The bloody International Brigades.
The Man might be coming down hard on high-vis targets like Megaupload and Anonymous, but at the end of the day, it's everyday n00bs like you and I who'll suffer most when our right to ride roughshod over archaic copyright laws is withdrawn. If that sounds lame, imagine what would happen if the tyrants went one step further, like Universal Music Group did recently, when they stole music from Floridian hip-hop duo After The Smoke, and then forced them to remove their original song from YouTube.
The story's kind of a complex one, but it all stems from the people who run YouTube (Google, maybe? They own it) making a deal last year that gave Universal the freedom to remove anything from the site that they thought infringed their copyright. We thought we'd get in touch with After The Smoke lyricist Whuzi to talk this strange situation through.
After The Smoke, "One In A Million"
VICE: Hey Whuzi. So, what happened with your song, Universal Music Group and the mysterious disappearing YouTube clip?
Whuzi: OK, so we wrote a song called "One In A Million." At some point, Yelawolf, who is signed to Universal, released a song called "Far From A Bitch" that was him rapping over the top of "One In A Million."
Did anyone from Universal ever seek permission to use your track as backing for Yelawolf?
Well, I spoke to their management and they claimed it was leaked or something. It didn't seem intentional. When we spoke to them they said, "Oh, we're not trying to promote that song, we'll take it down." We thought that after that, it was all solved.
Do you think that maybe Yelawolf mentioned the track to Universal and someone just said they would sort the copyright but never bothered, or something like that?
I would hate to think that that happened. I take them at their word that they didn't do anything wrong. Besides, it's hip-hop, people are gonna rap to whatever. But as far as taking it to a level of intellectual property, I assume that if I follow proper procedure at my end I'm protected. To just be able to do whatever they want and still come and edge us out is ridiculous.
Yelawolf, "Far From A Bitch"
OK, you mean when they took your clip down?
When we tried to put up our own music a week later, last Sunday, we got notified by Universal—through YouTube, who pulled the song four hours later—that we were infringing on copyright. We were like, "Wait a minute? What's going on?" When I looked into it deeper and tried to contact YouTube and went through the all the correct procedures, they told me the entity that owns the copyright to our song was Universal.
Right. That must have sucked.
We tried to figure out how our song went from being our song, to being owned by Universal.
So, when did Yelawolf use your track?
Yelawolf's camp said they recorded it about a year ago. We actually approached Yelawolf in 2010, we opened up for him, traded emails back and forth. He was like, "I love this song, this is one of my favorite beats I've ever heard," and it was intended to be a collaboration. That's when he got signed to Shady [Shady Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group] and we assumed he had gotten busy, because we didn't hear from him after that.
OK. So, you knew him before UMG signed him.
Yeah. It wasn't until two weeks ago that a fan said they had heard our beat on one of his mixtapes on this song, "Far From A Bitch."
Can you still buy the mixtape with your unattributed beat on it?
I'm taking them at they're word that they're not making money or trying to profit off that track. But my whole problem is I'm not trying to go after Yelawolf, or his camp, but I don't think that we should suffer at the expense of them [UMG]. We can't even release our own music? It doesn't make sense.
So, what's the situation now?
I think through tumblr and our fans reaching out through different outlets, we were able to get access to different people who work at Universal. After going back and forth with the right people, and some advice from lawyers, they finally retracted their claim. But it's not clear whether they still own the copyright of the song, of our own production?
So in other words they've conceded to give you permission to broadcast your own song which you made and they stole.
Yeah, exactly. We're now allowed to have our own song online. It's pretty ridiculous. Last year Universal signed a deal with YouTube to be able to remove any content they like at their own discretion. We're independent artists with our own copyrighted material and we're being accused of infringing on their artist just because they're on Universal. They have no legal right to that song, it makes no sense to me.
What do Universal have to do to prove to YouTube that they own the track? Anything?
Well, I filed a dispute and got a message back saying that, basically, we were lying and that Universal owned it, without any proof. It's pretty much their word over ours.
That's a pretty worrying precedent to set—that big guys like Universal can basically rule the internet as they see fit. And it could be even worse when combined with the kinds of punishments being proposed for copyright infringement. Write a good song, go to prison. Like Leadbelly, but in reverse.
I definitely think they're just shitting on independent artists. Universal are just trying to get ahead of everybody and make money off everybody, including the little guy.
From what I understand, Universal have an automated system that scans the audio on YouTube's database and requests that things be taken down if they're too similar to a piece of music they own, or something. An ultra-efficient copyright checker, and you got caught up in its blade of infringement. But for whatever reason they took it further with you and you had to seek legal advice, which would indicate that they couldn't give a shit, really.
Do you think this sort of thing might go on a lot at major labels, but they just don't usually get caught?
That's exactly it, if it wasn't for our fanbase getting riled up about it, I think this would have been swept under the rug.
If you were offered a record deal by Universal right now, would you take it?
Not under these circumstances, no. I have more pride with what we've done. With the whole SOPA protest, people realize they have power when they see a negative thing going on and act on it. We're not even Universal artists and they think they can push us around, imagine what they'd be doing to us if we were actually signed to them.