You can’t break the law if you own it

Let’s start this off with one of my favorite songs, a blast from New Orleans, “Don’t You Just Know It” by Huey “Piano” Smith:

Huey ‘Piano’ Smith & His Clowns – Don’t You Just Know It
Found at

(BTW, anyone else out there digging Treme?)

Now, if you loathe yourself as much as I do, give up 30 seconds of your life to listen to this third-grade rip-off:

YouTube Preview Image

The melody, arrangement, man-to-woman vocals, the call-and-response chorus… virtually identical. But the words are slightly changed, presumably just enough to avoid paying royalties for using the original. That’s its reason for existing, to cheat the artist (still alive, could probably use the cash). There is no sense of tribute or commentary that might exist in a mashup. This is a work that was made solely in the interests of commerce.

Ironically, the knock-off is entitled “Life is Beautiful”, even though this copy sucks all the life and beauty out of the original. All that remains is the sound of monetized culture. If I walked into your house and heard Huey Smith, I would be expecting a night of musical delight and a kick-ass party. If I heard “Life is Beautiful”, I’d be leaving as soon as possible, before you cranked up the Michael Bolton or the Kenny G and tried to sell me some Amway.

Perhaps I’m overreacting again. Now that I think about it, Smith was probably screwed out of his publishing rights by some other sleazeball many years ago. This may be a relatively benign instance of corporate-on-corporate crime… Given the concentration of media ownership, maybe just some sort of inter-departmental accounting error.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Think about it next time some music industry executive says they are protecting the interests of the artist.

PS: thanks to Grant Potter for passing on a nifty musical antidote.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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5 Responses to You can’t break the law if you own it

  1. Jim Groom says:

    ***Revised comment one, the first try never works for me on long comments 🙂

    Come on, Brian. Why you getting so worked up? It’s simply a matter of slightly changing the details to appeal to a broader audience. Sure a bit of the spirit it lost, but at the same time the focus changes to the camera, and allows for a sense of individual artistry. I’m increasingly getting annoyed at all you bloggers who seem to stand for something, this isn’t the 60s you know, it’s time to put away your patchouli and get with the digital program. Digital humanities, digital scholarship, digital research, etc. it’s the next best thing even if it is increasingly becoming soulless, and let’s face it–if some two bit artist from new Orleans gets screwed in the process that’s no big deal because one of them will be sure to write a paperless essay about it one day. But corporations are getting screwed, well then, I think we need to intervene because they will be running the universities by then 🙂

    As for Treme, I am enjoying it tremendously. I was talking with Luke Waltzer about it last night, and the idea of the inside/outside issue happening in that show—and how it’s a bit off-putting. The second episode set up the cheese-heads pretty one-dimensionally, and the street musician seemed like a total ass (soemthign The Wire was great at avoiding). I also had my questions about Steve Zahn’s character after the first few moments of episode 1, but he quickly won me over, I dug the whole Tower records scene, as well as him as the secret concierge.

    I’m wondering a bit about John Goodman reprising his role as Walter from the Lebowski, it just seems like he has simply revisited that character (and who am I to complain about that?) and I dig so many of his lines “NPR, the n is for nuance” along with his screaming fits. But the scene in episode 2 when he is talking to one of his students at Tulane about the fact they gutted all the hard sciences and engineering programs, while keeping all the meaningless identity studies programs was a brilliant riff—I looked for it on YouTube, but not there yet.

    And Bunk, Bunk, Bunk, Bunk, I love Bunk. That guy sold me from the beginning, as soon as he starting playing his bone.

    And Lester, badass, as usual, and love the whole idea of rebuilding and punishing those who destroy, right after his son gets busted for smoking a joint, and he turns around to say, what do you expect, you were in his face…just like the kid who stole his tools.

    And the restaurant owner asking her family for money, brutal scene, crazy vision.

    Yeah, I am digging Treme, wish theywould settle in a bit on the inside/outside narrative and make it a little less obvious and simplified, but I imagine they are just finding their legs.

    A kind of think of Treme as similar to Rick Prelinger’s vision of the archive as a means to save Detroit, and I often think of Prelinger and Detroit while watching it. How does this kind of fictionalization of the disaster and subsequent local, state, and federal disinvestment of a city play out in citizen archivists versus David Simon—or a writer/producer like him. I often think of The Wire as a kind of documentary of sorts, but that is dangerous, Bunny is a character from Dostoevsky and Faulkner, can he be a person?—and the fiction and plot drives it. I have recently started to think of Prelinger and Simon’s visions as parallel, and Prelinger’s gives us room to work within it more directly.

    But what I like about both of them, and this goes for Treme which was entirely unexpected for me, is that they are at their root hopeful—who knew?.

  2. Brian says:

    Hey Jim, regarding the relationship of Treme to documentary or fictionalization… have you seen this open letter by David Simon to the people of New Orleans?

    Like you, I get the sense of a show that is still finding its way, but the good moments feel so fine I’m happy to endure a few off-key notes. (We seem to agree on which is which… I think the snotty street musician may yet be redeemed… After all, the Steve Zahn character comes across so much better in the second episode than in the first.)

    I thought about asking you about John Goodman’s character… he strikes me as what would be if Walter had gotten a grad school deferment instead of going to ‘Nam.

    And how long until we stop thinking of the new characters as “Bunk” and “Lester”? On some level, I don’t care, I just want to keep watching them.

    BTW, I hope to dig in deeper on your Prelinger obsession, you’re onto something.

    (I deleted your first comment, hope nothing got lost.)

  3. Pingback: Fair use is your right to call a lawyer when YouTube illegally deletes your video

  4. Jim Groom says:

    Thanks for deleting that first draft 😉
    And I am with you 100% on Treme, I am anxiously awaiting the next episode, and I dig the whole musical scene going on in season one. What did you make of the Elvis Costello stuff, kind makes him look like an ass, even if unintentionally, which I am kinda digging.

  5. Ted Major says:

    Changing a song “just enough” to avoid paying royalties probably isn’t enough to win a copyright infringement suit–after all, NWA lost a copyright infringement suit for sampling 3 notes and George Harrison lost a copyright infringement suit because a judge found that he had subconsciously plagiarized “He’s So Fine” when writing “My Sweet Lord.” Copyright infringement isn’t nearly so rigidly defined. (Which isn’t necessarily good news for writers and musicians– see for example I Got a Mashup from James Boyle’s The Public Domain, which traces the musical borrowing of “I’ve Got a Saviour” from it’s origin as a hymn, through its reworking by Ray Charles as “I’ve Got a Woman” and again by Kanye West as “Gold Digger” to the mashup “George Bush Doesn’t Like Black People”–concidentally, about the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans.)

    Certainly this commercial is more similar to “Don’t You Just Know It” than Harrison’s song was to “He’s So Fine.” So cheer up–if Huey can find a lawyer to take his case, they can probably shake a settlement out of Nikon. Good news for the Louisana bar association, if no one else.

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