Kaskade's Free Music: Beer, or Speech? A Look at Sampling, Creative Commons and Copyright (Op-Ed)

Jeff Forney


Steve Martocci is the co-founder of Splice, a platform that connects musicians and their tools with the cloud. Splice is also advancing the concept of "open source" music and public collaboration. 

After a series of DMCA takedown notices stripped his Soundcloud, DJ and producer Kaskade — née Ryan Raddon — responded on Tumblr to call out music copyright laws for being out of touch with the modern digital landscape. "These laws and page takedowns are cutting us down at the knees," Raddon attested. "Countless artists have launched their careers though mash ups, bootlegs, remixes and music sharing." 

"I'd happily parse out the pieces of every song I've made for others to use. Remix that. Use that. Think you could do it better? Show me," he said in that Tumblr post. 

Wasting no time to prove his point, Raddon is offering the parsed pieces of his latest single, "Ain't Gotta Lie," and challenging the music-creating world to remix, use, or make it better — no strings attached… at least we assume that much. 

Go to this page to download the stems. There are convenient clues on the tempo and key, a purchase link for the song on Beatport, and a free download link. But, there's nothing about copyright licenses. So how can we really use these stems? 

The ambiguity of "free" raises questions about the laws governing the use of creative content. Three decades ago, programmer turned activist Richard Stallman set the free software movement in motion (and open source culture with it) by demanding we reconsider our definition of free. 

As Stallman has been ubiquitously quoted, "Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer."

"Free as in beer" suggests free of charge or zero cost. In the context of software, freeware may be available at no cost, but there are usually restrictions on the rights of the user, including the rights to use, copy, distribute, modify and make derivative works of the software or extract the source code. 

While Kaskade's "Ain't Gotta Lie" stems are free, Kaskade still owns the stems under the Copyright Law and can choose to enforce his rights at any time, potentially rendering all of the stem users liable for infringement.

"Free as in free speech" implies liberty and freedom from restrictions. With free software, you're encouraged to contribute to the source code, to modify, improve and redistribute it. These actions are usually prohibited by copyright law, but the rights-holder is able to remove these restrictions by accompanying the software with a license (like GNU, MIT or Apache). Open source software is possible because of licenses like this. 

Similar to software developers, music creators continually borrow, mix, and enhance each other's sounds. Evolution in music comes from continual experimentation and inspiration from the past and present. 

Producer Mark Ronson recently said in a TED Talk, "The dam has burst. We live in the post-sampling era. We take the things that we love and we build on them."

Ronson is right. We live in a thriving remix culture where the creation of derivative work is inevitable. Consumers obtain and re-distribute copyrighted material illegitimately all the time. It's become ubiquitous. Activist Lawrence Lessig, pioneer of Creative Commons and author of "Remix," asserts "outdated copyright laws have turned our children into criminals."  

Moved by years of complaints from industry stakeholders, Congress is now considering updates to the Copyright Act, which hasn't had an overhaul since 1976. The US Copyright Office has launched a Music Licensing Study to evaluate the effectiveness of the Copyright Act, receiving comments from the likes of Spotify, Pandora, the RIAA and more. 

Several bills have already been proposed to reform provisions of the Copyright Act, including paying dues on streaming pre-1972 recorded music and performing rights organizations pushing for "fair market value" on royalties from digital streaming services. So far none of the proposed bills would address the fundamental issue raised by Kaskade: We should encourage artists to build upon the works that came before them, not prevent it.

"Having the means to expose music to the masses is a deft tool to breathe new life into and promote a song," said Raddon in that Tumbler post. Artists like Kaskade that want their work to be shared and repurposed aren't completely powerless. On Splice, Figure and Alesia have opened up their music's project files accompanied by a Creative Commons license for the community to remix and learn from. In the same way a GNU, MIT, or Apache license is applied to free software, a Creative Commons license allows the creative community to share, use and build upon an otherwise copyrighted work.

Kaskade closes his manifesto with an aspirational declaration: "Free the music, and your cash will follow." Artists that want to advance an open source future for music need to reconsider their definition of free. Releasing stems free of charge isn't enough. To protect creators, the stems need to be freed from restrictions by choosing a Creative Commons license.

So Kaskade...how can we use these stems? Are they free as in beer or free as in free speech?

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