The Record Industry Is Going After Parody Songs Written By an Algorithm

Songs written by 'Weird A.I. Yancovic' are getting flagged for violating copyright. Its creator says they should be protected by Fair Use.
July 22, 2020, 1:04pm
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Image: John Garrison

Georgia Tech researcher Mark Riedl didn’t expect that his machine learning model “Weird A.I. Yancovic,” which generates new rhyming lyrics for existing songs would cause any trouble. But it did.

On May 15, Reidl posted an AI-generated lyric video featuring the instrumental to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” It was taken down on July 14, Reidl tweeted, after Twitter received a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice for copyright infringement from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which represents major and independent record companies.

“I am fairly convinced that my videos fall under fair use,” Riedl told Motherboard of his AI creation, which is obviously inspired by Weird Al's parodies. Riedl said his other AI-generated lyric videos posted to Twitter have not been taken down.

Riedl has contested the takedown with Twitter but has not received a response. Twitter also did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

The incident raises the question of what role machine learning plays when it comes to the already nuanced and complicated rules of fair use, which allows for the use of a copyrighted work in certain circumstances, including educational uses and as part of a “transformative” work. Fair use also protects parody in some circumstances.

Riedl, whose research focuses on the study of artificial intelligence and storytelling for entertainment, says the model was created as a personal project and outside his role at Georgia Tech. “Weird A.I. Yankovic generates alternative lyrics that match the rhyme and syllables schemes of existing songs. These alternative lyrics can then be sung to the original tune,” Riedl said. “Rhymes are chosen, and two neural networks, GPT-2 and XLNET, are then used to generate each line, word by word.”

It’s worth noting, according to the New York Times Weird Al Yankovic asks for permission from an artist before he parodies a song. It appears that the inclusion of the instrumental to “Beat It” is what triggered the takedown notice by IFPI, but Riedl is still convinced his videos are protected under fair use.

“I would argue that my system is generating parody lyrics and that I do not require permission from the copyright holder to publish parody content,” Riedl said. “I am not a lawyer, however.”

The criteria considered when determining if a work is protected under fair use include the nature of the copyrighted work, the quantity and quality of the copyrighted material used, and the effect on the market of the original work created by the new and unlicenced work. Another important criteria is the purpose and character of the use, including whether the new work is in any way transformative. This is particularly pertinent in a world full of fan-made supercuts of clips set to music, memes, video parodies, and other types of online content that often take copyrighted material and transform it to something different.

Casey Fiesler, a professor of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder who works on the legal committee for the Organization for Transformative Works, said Riedl’s video is similar to supercut videos in that there is a visual transformation but the audio isn't transformed, which she said can make for a harder fair use argument. However, Fiesler said in her opinion that Riedl’s video should be considered an example of fair use.

“This new product is both a parody and a sort of karaoke-style video. It's definitely really different than what the original song is, which is kind of what transformativeness is,” Fiesler said.

But Fiesler said arguments can always be made either way, and by the nature of her work she is an advocate for a more expansive application of fair use laws. “Fair use is one of those things where, if you ask someone like me, you'll get a very different answer than if you asked the in-house counsel of an entertainment company,” Fiesler said.

The takedown of Riedl’s video raises another interesting question: whether it matters that a transformative work is created by an algorithm and not a human when considered in the context of fair use protection.

Fiesler said she doesn’t think it does, and pointed to a court case in which Google’s collaboration with major research libraries to digitize entire book collections for Google Books was deemed protected under fair use.

“So in Google Books, for example, the case turned slightly on the fact that Google wasn't just copying the book, it was giving information about the book and providing stats,” Fiesler said. “That was an algorithm doing all that.”

Fiesler said it is important to consider whether an algorithm was used to send the takedown notice, which are often automatically acted upon by platforms to avoid lawsuits. Fiesler has written in the past that relying on algorithms and not human moderators can leave more room for error and result in the removal of non-infringing works—particularly those that are transformative and protected under fair use.

When asked for comment, IFPI would not give Motherboard details on how this specific takedown notice was determined, but a spokesperson did say it was a combination of automated and manual processes.

“Whilst we don’t give explicit details of our specific content protection work, we use a combination of manual and automatic processes. This example would have been manually checked for a fair use claim as part of the protocol,” the IFPI spokesperson wrote in an email.

Ultimately, Weird A.I. Yankovic is a personal project that Riedl created for fun, but the discussion around the takedown of one of his videos speaks to the larger issue of copyright law and AI, and whether the laws will evolve along with the rapidly changing technology.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.