Phoenix and Harvard Professor Rise Above Coypright, Fair Use Kerfuffle

March 7, 2014

CopyrightI love the band Phoenix.

Run, Run, Run” started it all, and then I listened to “1901” and  “Girlfriend” about 68 million times each. When the band came to Minneapolis, I went to the concert. I don’t have a tattoo reflecting my adoration for Phoenix, but I’ve thought about it (a little).

So, when I heard that Phoenix was involved in a copyright dispute, my ears pricked up.

It turns out Phoenix was only indirectly involved and came out of it all smelling like a rose. Allow me to explain.

In 2013, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor and one of the most esteemed intellectual property scholars in the world, used a clip of the Phoenix song “Lisztomania” set to footage from “The Breakfast Club” in one of his lectures. (I’m not sure if this was it, but it looks like it could be.) Apparently, the lesson was meant to illustrate how artists use each other’s material for inspiration and as the genesis for their own, new works. Lessig then posted a video of that lecture to YouTube.

(So, for those of you keeping track at home, that’s Phoenix’s music being used in  a mashup, which was viewed in an educational setting, recorded and finally uploaded to YouTube. I count three degrees of removal from the Phoenix song itself.)

Not long after the video was posted, YouTube’s bots detected the use of “Lisztomania” and notified Liberation Music, Phoenix’s record label. Liberation then sent Lessig a takedown notice.

Lessig is famously opposed to what he sees as overly robust legal protections for artistic material, so as you can imagine, he rolled his eyes – figuratively speaking, of course, but probably literally as well. He (correctly, of course) asserted his rights under the doctrine of fair use, saying that he only used a sample of the song and used it in a education context. Therefore, he didn’t need Liberation’s permission.

In late February, Liberation and Lessig settled. The terms were confidential, but apparently, Liberation will “pay Lessig for the harm it caused,” according to NPR.

The icing on this cake? After Phoenix heard about this dust-up (which was instigated by their record label, not them), the band members wrote an essay on Tumblr encouraging fair use of their music.

Gosh, as if I needed yet another reason to love them.