Girl Talk, Copyright and Copyleft, and the Evolving Boundary of Fair Use

Lynne Kiesling

Have you been following the growing popularity and the music creation model of Girl Talk? Girl Talk is Gregg Gillis, from Pittsburgh (YAY!), and an article in today’s New York Times summarizes his music, his techniques, and its reflection of the evolution of copyright:

Girl Talk, whose real name is Gregg Gillis, makes danceable musical collages out of short clips from other people’s songs; there are more than 300 samples on “Feed the Animals,” the album he released online at in June. He doesn’t get the permission of the composers to use these samples, as United States copyright law mostly requires, because he maintains that the brief snippets he works with are covered by copyright law’s “fair use” principle (and perhaps because doing so would be prohibitively expensive).

Yeah, samples are old hat by now, but Girl Talk is lively, popular, and more mainstream than many of the others who have used samples from others before. Here’s the intellectual property connection: not only does he argue that his use of the samples constitutes fair use, he (and his Congressman) argue that copyright law has become so restrictive that it stifles creativity.

Mr. Gillis says his samples fall under fair use, which provides an exemption to copyright law under certain circumstances. Fair use allows book reviewers to quote from novels or online music reviewers to use short clips of songs. Because his samples are short, and his music sounds so little like the songs he takes from that it is unlikely to affect their sales, Mr. Gillis contends he should be covered under fair use.

Fair use has become important to the thinking of legal scholars, sometimes called the “copyleft,” who argue that copyright law has grown so restrictive that it impedes creativity. And it has become enough of an issue that Mr. Gillis’s congressman, Representative Mike Doyle, Democrat of Pennsylvania, spoke on his behalf during a hearing on the future of radio.

One thought on “Girl Talk, Copyright and Copyleft, and the Evolving Boundary of Fair Use

  1. As a Pittsburgher (well, for over ten years), I found Girl Talk’s rise to be nothing short of surprising and joyous. Surprising because I never thought his music would catch on outside of sampling geeks (fans of groups like Evolution Control Committee, Negativland, John Oswald, and so forth), and joyous because it’s high time sample manipulation and the issues surrounding it got more attention.

    I’m curious about the economic issues of sampling. Given that it’s not the same as music piracy (the original songs are not being distributed wholesale), or plagiarism (Girl Talk does not pass the snippets off as his own, only that particular recontextualization), what are the economic effects? Naively, I could see more interest in the underlying source material, and more music being produced in general.

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