Chiptunes: Been Caught Stealing

Publish date:

Back in the mid-’80s and early ’90s, DIY programming nerds were a fiercely progressive bunch. Believing that freedom of information is a basic civil right, they hacked everything they could; like graf artists breaking into buildings and tagging them as their own, they removed copyright protection from software applications and introduced “crack intros” to computer programs, letting users of said software know which hacker crew had freed up the program to the public. Those crack screens turned into A/V spatializer demos (op art for the coding-inclined), and the “demoscene” was born. Out of that came chiptunes and 8-bit music: beats and melodies synthesized from old computer sound chips (like you might find in a Commodore 64) with limited polyphony and tone-generating possibilities.

Today, “chiptunes” refers to both a musical style and a subculture of people who make such tracks and give them away for free online. The chiptunes scene has proliferated exponentially and, in keeping with the original ideal of sharing information, the tunes spread as fast as the open-source software they’re made on. Warm and fuzzy socialism, right? Well, not exactly.

As it turns out, chiptunes’ egalitarian idealism may be its biggest weakness: Freely downloadable music can tempt those mining “free” samples. Add to that the fact that most of the music is released under idealistic (and frequently misunderstood) Creative Commons licenses–and the fact that the subculture has no real financial backing from labels–and you have a recipe for the perfect musical heist.

Case in point: In 2007, hip-hop producer Timbaland plagiarized the entire melody of a legally remixed track, “Acidjazzed Evening,” by Finnish demoscene musician Janne “Tempest” Suni, and used it on Nelly Furtado’s “Do It.” When the accusations came down, Timbaland responded in an MTV interview with hubristic indifference, implying that there was no reason to clear samples for videogame music. “The dude is trying to act like I went to his house and took it from his computer. I don’t know him from a can of paint,” said Timbaland.

Toronto band Crystal Castles also found itself in hot water after yanking a Creative Commons-licensed tune from chiptune producer Lo-bat, chopping it up, pitching it down, adding vocals, and renaming it “Insecticon." Beyond the obvious, the problem here was that the CC license required Crystal Castles to attribute their original source. Secondly, they were not to use that source in a saleable piece of music, and, thirdly, they would be required to license that new piece of music in the same way that the source was licensed. Crystal Castles’ management responded by changing the song title to “Crystal Castles vs. Lo-Bat (Unreleased Demo)” and then locking the band’s Wikipedia page.

“Lo-bat releases most of his music under what, by any standards, are pretty generous terms,” explains New York chip musician and co-administrator of the 8bitpeoples net-label Bit Shifter (a.k.a. Joshua Davis), attempting to sum of the state of affairs. “He’s gone out of his way to allow and promote listener participation in his music, and has made his stipulations pretty reasonable. He’s basically saying, ‘Here, have this for free, alter it, remix it–just please keep my name attached and please don’t sell it.’ Crystal Castles’ uncredited, commercial use of his audio is obnoxious not because of the act of sampling per se, but because they managed to contravene the few rights Lo-bat opted to keep.”

In other words, Davis continues, “It’s like Lo-bat opening the door to his house, declaring that everyone is welcome to come in and take whatever they like, except for one off-limits room, and Crystal Castles walking right into that room and helping themselves without being bothered about it at all.”