Copyright and Mashup


Just as in the case of sampling and remix, copyright and mashup go hand in hand: it all runs down to using music legally. Given that, today, we’ve all the facilities to listen and produce music at the tip of our fingers, it might be tempting to get into the field of derivative creations. Sampling, remix, and mashups are an example of these. However, as we have seen in our journey through copyright and its many sideroads, you need to be careful whenever you use preexisting music to come up with yours. That is, you need to make sure that you don’t infringe any laws in your way to become a professional musician.

Mashup: What You Need to Know

A mashup is the combination of two or more samples of sound recordings to produce a new work. The result of a mashup is a form of song that emerges from the blending of the aforementioned two or more pre-recorded songs. The most common instances of mashup are, firstly, the merge between the vocals from one song and the instruments from another one. Secondly, there is the blending of many musical instruments or vocal samples that result in new harmonies and melodies. Thirdly, you superimpose the vocal track of one tune over the instrumental track of another one, seamlessly. In all of them,  changing the tempo and key is indispensable.

In some countries, such as the United States, these types of productions don’t automatically fall into the infringement of the law. The reason is that they are derivative; in other words, they’re transformative. Thus, the final product is, itself, original. Even though, technically, they aren’t protected by the laws of fair use. Regardless, there are many ways in which you can protect your own music and ways in which you can respectfully—and legally—create mashups. 

For example,  David Bowie was popular, among many other things, because of this type of music. Another common case in point is Rihanna’s “S.O.S.,” a song that brought back into focus the one from which it stemmed: Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” 

Copyright and Mashup: the Copyright Portion

Even if there’s no clear and univocal way to avoid copyright infringement when it comes to mashups, there are ways in which we can learn from what other artists have done when faced with this situation. For example, some musicians test the waters by getting their mashups out on peer-to-peer networks without licensing the work. If this turns out with no difficulty, then they might obtain a license afterwards and release their tune within the stipulations of the law. Another experiment you might do, following artists like Danger Mouse, is to release a free version of your work to listeners on standard, unlabeled, CDs. Moreover, in the emerging artist groups, it’s each time more common to obtain money from donations (instead of actual payments).

At least in the United States, there are still no court determinations and guidelines on mashups. In other words, there’s no way for anyone to really determine if a mashup is protected under fair law. For this reason, if you’re a mashup artist, you need to be particularly careful: your work might come under scrutiny at any time. However, this is not enough to deter you from pursuing this passion: as with any case of derivative work, first and foremost be respectful and ask for permission from the copyright holder before attempting to get economic rewards from your production. If you want to learn more about this subject from the legal perspective, our advice is for you to contact an intellectual property lawyer.

Copyright and Mashup: Conclusion

The most conservative (and, most often, ascribed to a strict law practice) circles think that mashups don’t contain any original content: that mashups are “solely” a combination of preexisting copyrighted songs. We don’t believe this is the case: multiplicity is a celebratory of our 21st-century lives. Your purposes as a mashup artist might be many and they’re all worth it. You might intend to pay homage or tribute, to offer criticism, to educate, to indulge in your curiosity, and, of course, to follow the logic of the popular demand.