Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An interview with Legitmix creator Omid McDonald

Posted By on 11.23.11 at 02:22 PM

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My column for this week's Reader is on Legitmix, a Web-based music distribution service that when it launched seemed poised to accomplish something respectable but not exactly earth-shattering: make it easier for DJs to sell mixes that include copyrighted material by other artists. Recently it unveiled "Rush Over Bklyn," an El-P remix of his own "Drones Over Bklyn" that replaces his original beat with big chunks of Rush's "Tom Sawyer." El-P made it without getting the band's permission but by all available evidence did so in a way that doesn't run afoul of intellectual property law.

While I was preparing to write the piece I spoke with Omid McDonald, the guy who came up with this deviously brilliant little piece of technology, which stands to change the whole way artists on both sides of the sampling divide deal with the issue. After the jump, the interview:

Give me a little background about yourself and how you came up with Legitmix.

How I was introduced to it was through a childhood buddy of mine who went into the film business and spent four years putting together a documentary about hip-hop artists in Queensbridge, New York. Some distributors wanted to distribute it and he learned that that's not an easy thing to do, and the bills were into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it. And it just killed his music. I really found it completely crazy that all this hard work gets blocked by the finance issue and started thinking about how to come up with a software solution to it.

It's a pretty ingenious workaround in my opinion. Could you tell me how this particular approach came to you?

To me it just seems obvious, but I'm not from the music space, so I've never thought about music clearance as a problem before—so maybe just a fresh set of eyes on it came up with this point of view. When I looked at it I was like, well, the problem is that their creative input is glued in with the copyrighted music they use, and therefore the problem is if you want to sell or distribute that you have to go get licenses because you're selling and distributing another person's property.

So the thinking was: What if you were able to essentially separate their creative input in some way and allow individuals to re-create their work using their copies of the copyrighted music? That, to me, seemed like a common-sense thing. That way the remix artist can sell their value-add without harming—or in fact even encouraging—the value of the copyrighted music that they've sampled.

One of the things I find interesting is that the Legitmix model encourages people to purchase the music being sampled, which in the past hasn't been an element in sampling.

Well, it more than just encourages. They can't enjoy the new work without having the original, so it's a direct link. I've been talking to a lot of remixers and DJs and it's not like they want to rip off the original artist. These are people they admire and respect. They're just faced with a system where they can't do the right thing, essentially. Legitmix allows them to say, yeah, I sampled that person and I want to make sure that they benefit, but I want to be sure to also benefit, and Legitmix allows both of those things to happen simultaneously.

The technology is agnostic to the content. The algorithm is totally oblivious to the acoustical content of what's being manipulated. It could just as well used for a DJ set or for a sample-based beat or a remix. We did our first project with Diplo because he has a reputation in the space, and I think it was a great way to get the technology known out there, but the applications will go across any kind of use of music.

I'm interested to see how people use the technology from here on out. What uses people find for it. It's a fairly wide-open sort of model.

That's the neat thing. We've been getting approached by people with applications we've never even thought of. Like we were approached by a guy who makes gym mixes. He's spent his life figuring out how to change any song into 32 steps, for step classes. It sounds like a very niche thing, but there are a lot of step classes, and when we looked into it's actually a pretty crazy business. Since the use of music is so hard, the companies hire bands to do covers and then they go and turn those covers into 32 steps, which doesn't produce an ideal result.

I'm sure some rights holders are going to be happy about the promotional aspect, the baked-in retail aspect, but I suspect someone is going to eventually find someone using Legitmix with their material and not be happy about it. Do you foresee getting any sort of pushback from rights holders?

For sure. Anything new can't please everybody, and with Legitmix one might have sort of an emotional reaction, saying, well my work is being reused in this way. But that's where there's a balance between the copyright holder and the individual, that traditionally that stops at the individual's front door. So what you do with someone's work behind closed doors, they don't really have any control over it. And so just from a reality point of view this is being done anyway. This stuff gets remixed and distributed and no one's benefiting. With Legitmix, the person enjoying the remixed work is also getting a copy of that original work on their computer, so the legacy of the original artist is actually . . . that copy gets them a new fan who's never heard of the original artist and can now enjoy the track when they get the remixer's remix of it.

Intellectual property and copyright law are things I'm really interested in. And I can't see legally any reason why this wouldn't work. The sort of loophole that it uses seems strongly defensible.

I dislike the word "loophole" because it has so many negative connotations. This technology has provided a new avenue. When I started researching this, I read the whole sync-licensing background and right in the preamble it says, well, since it's not practical to distribute the music being synced we will create this whole framework for it. Well, technology can make some of these things practical, so it could be seen as a workaround or a loophole, but I prefer the thinking that it's a new solution. But whatever term works. It does it in a way that really benefits everyone and I think really goes with the spirit of copyright law. Because copyright law's there to foster new innovation and protect the rights of copyright holders, and right now neither is happening with the current system.

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