Copyright v Artistic Voice and the Great Kutiman

By Richard Menta 3/12/09

I watch Sarah Amstutz sing acappella for fun in her YouTube video with her baby sitting on her lap. My child is just a little bit older than hers so I naturally focus on the play yard and high seat in the background. Children are wonderful, but they also take up all your free time. So if a young woman wants to sing an original song on a YouTube video, the baby becomes part of a little closet performance that, as of this writing, garnered about 5,000 views since she posted it a year ago on March 21, 2008.

Someone who goes by the handle Kutiman also discovered this little ditty - and used it. Kutiman has been pulling a huge buzz on the Internet for a series of inspired music videos that he (aka Israeli musician Ophir Kutiel) has posted on his web site ThruYou. In Kutiman's own words "What you are about to see is a mix of unrelated YouTube video clips edited together to create ThruYou".

These clips are not a mere mechanical exercise in editing. They are in themselves a new inspired work culled from the bits and pieces of others. The work is impressive as is the tremendous effort it must have taken to create these videos. In the mashup that Kutiman calls Someday, Amstutz is the star vocalist backed by an eclectic instumental force of farfisa organ, Jews harp, vibraphone and recorder, just to name some of the musical ephemera Someday pulls from other videos to color the track with.

But as Merlin Mann points out in his article for 43 Folders Kutiman, Big Media, and the Future of Creative Entrepreneurship "So amazing, so illegal. What are we going to do with you, future"? My reponse to Mann's point is this; is it illegal or is it fair use? If Kutiman's work was based on clips from major label YouTube fare you know what the record industry would call it. They would declare it theft of intellectual property and a pure violation of copyright law. It doesn't mean they know what they are talking about.

In this specific example I call it giving life to Amstutz's modest performance with a heartened technical/artistic vision of the future. That's how Mann sees the Kutiman video “The Mother of All Funk Chords”, which drew Slashdot's attention. Says Mann "Everybody knows the business has moved from legal to binary files. The question now is how much more lead time old media companies and other IP-obsessives can afford to burn by pretending it’s otherwise."

As I peruse the other tracks on ThruYou I am most impressed so far with Babylon Band. The video starts out with a straight clip of a novice drummer just hacking around a kit. Kutiman then transcends the moment as he transforms through editing the drummer's unsteady rhythym into the hard fast beat from which the track will ride on. It is at first comical as you watch the edited drum video give the drummer a surrealistic speed and accuracy on the instrument. Then you realize that this opening is Kutiman's statement of his skill, no different from Louis Armstrong's opening trumpet solo on West End Blues. Kutiman is not physically playing the instrument, but he is controlling it with a dexterity few could have imagined a week ago when the videos first appeared.

Technical pyrotechnics aside, what is most compelling about all of Kutiman's efforts is that the music is, well compelling. Turn off the video and just listen to the music alone and you will hear what I mean. Of course, music and video are one.

Go to ThruYou and make your own opinions. I doubt any of the musicians who found their way in any of those videos will have any problem with Kutiman. Combined, the whole is greater than the parts. So much so that the Kutiman ThruYou videos have the potential to inspire millions to follow suit.

Which leads to the same questions again; illegal or fair use? Derivative work or original work? Before others copy the Kutiman efforts using Beyonce and Lil Wayne videos we should explore these questions on our own.

Kutiman makes a great case for fair use.

Sarah Amstutz acappella performance of Soon on YouTube


Kutiman Someday Video with the Sarah Amstutz vocal performance


Kutiman - Babylon Band

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