Crystal Castles: now under fire for abusing a Creative Commons license on a chiptune track. Photo by Oliver J. Lopena: (And CC-licensed, via Flickr.)

As using sounds produced on unusual 8-bit systems and game consoles grows in popularity, some artists are appropriating the music as their own. Sometimes, as with Beck, a well-known or better-marketed artist is using lesser-known artists for purposes of novelty. That alone has riled some in the hard-core chiptune community. In some cases, though, artists are resorting to outright theft. In the most recent case, part of the problem is people misunderstanding Creative Commons licenses, even though those licenses are designed to encourage sharing.

Is Creative Commons a safe license to use, or does it encourage this kind of theft? I think CC is actually a solution, not part of the problem — and this illustrates that.

Not Just Timbaland: Fitts for Fights Syndrome

Online music piracy is well known. But ready access to music online has led to a much more serious problem: digital plagiarism.

The best known case, of course, is the infamous 2007 Timbaland Controversy, in which Timbaland apparently stole musical elements from Finnish demoscene artist Tempest in the song Do It by Nelly Furtado. (See EM411 story, Wikipedia article.) But Timbaland isn’t alone.

At least Timbaland was using a sample; some artists steal whole songs outright. The notorious Norwegian duo Fitts for Fights performed entire sets stolen from demoscene/"microscene" recordings — and kept playing the stolen tunes live.

In April of this year, Laromlab released an entire album — every last track — stolen from other recordings. After CMJ reported the story, widely discussed on chip community 8-bit collective, the "artist" was forced to admit the entire album was a "hoax." (Thanks, Peter Swimm, for the tip.)

In fact, the track record here demonstrates that, for all Timbaland’s press as the most famous figure involved, micromusical plagiarism is rampant. It’s not just geeks getting defensive; there’s something to this, fueled by the novelty and apparent obscurity of the music. (See also: an ongoing thread on

Crystal Castles and Creative Commons

The real Lo-bat, please stand up. Lo-bat, framed by Voltage Controlled’s visuals, at Blip Festival 2007. Photo: Joshua Davis, aka Bit Shifter, via Flickr.

The latest episode combines 8-bit musical plagiarism with an abuse of Creative Commons licenses. Crystal Castles is a Toronto-based band that’s gotten quite a lot of positive press for their use of 8-bit sounds, including a keyboard with an Atari chip. (And there’s the source of the problem: this stuff is "hot" partly because it’s novel to mainstream press.)

Unfortunately, some of Crystal Castles’ sound apparently isn’t their their own.

8-bit collective again noticed something is amiss, this time with their track "Insecticon." Far from simply sampling a track, the tune rearranges entire musical contents as the basis of the new tune. (Many in the 8-bit collective community at least claim they’re pro-sampling.)

There’s a difference in this case, though: the tune in question is Creative Commons-licensed. It’s possible Crystal Castles thought, incorrectly, that that meant "free." However, the CC license used specifically requires attribution, non-commercial use, and that the derivative work be released under the same license — that’s three strikes against Crystal Castles. The GPL license used in open source software has similar stipulations, and neither license means something isn’t protected by copyright law — the maker of something is still the copyright holder, and uses those rights to define the way in which they want their work used and shared.

Noted chiptune musician Marc Nostromo (M-.-n) writes us with a detailed explanation:

1. There is an unreleased track of Crystal Castles called ‘instecticon’ that borrows whole chunks of belgian artist lo-bat’s work.
Here is crystal’s track:
and here is lo-bat’s
My Little Droid Needs a Hand
Even tho the original track has been pitched down and chopped, there is no doubt it’s the same. Gameboy sounds are hard to get and the chances of getting the same complex sound lo-bat can get is absolutety zero.
The track is also featured on CC’s record label myspace
and although it NOW says lo-bat Vs. CC, it wasn’t before the story got found out:
Another ‘unreleased’ track of them ‘bitter hearts’ is just a mash up of several lo-bat tracks with ugly drums on it.

2. There are two aspect in this.

A) The first is obviously that Crystal Castles broke (and still does) the creative common license that the track was released under. The license specifies that the track can be used, remixed and transformed under the following conditions:
1- Attribution. You must give the original author credi t
2- Non-Commercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.
3- Share Alike. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a licence identical to this one
In this case, non of the points have been respected.
It’s quite a big deal since a LOT of artists are trusting creative commons and this story puts the license to doubt, since it seems people can break it and use other people’s work to look cool or build a hype. Even if lo-bat’s work has not been directly used for commercial purposes, it certainly has been used to build the image that they were out there, build press and get visibility.

B) Crystal Castles has been getting a lot press using the image of getting sounds nobody did before by using modified old console chips and is somehow stealing the whole ‘concept’ that the chiptune community is based on, and now we discover that rather than thanking the very own ground of this, they actually ripped the guts of it.

It’s actually not the first time they steal someone else’s artwork, there’s been quite a big issue about them using someone else’s drawing for their own stuff.

The artwork example is a good one. In that case, Crystal Castles "found" an image that they decided to use without credit for promotional materials in the hopes that "the artist might reveal themselves." Then, when that artist did reveal himself, it seems the band strung him along about payment and used the artwork on everything from an album cover to t-shirts without permission. (Hint: if you’re a band and think you might yourself get into similar trouble, put it in writing and avoid fights. Well, unless you’re trying to rip off the artist, in which case, uh, behave like Crystal Castles?)

They Fought The Law And The Law Won

CC badges, photographed by ryanne lai hiu yeung.

I’d like to respond to the concerns about CC.

This isn’t the first time Creative Commons itself has been under scrutiny. Virgin Mobile got into trouble when it used Creative Commons-licensed images from Flickr in an ad campaign. (See discussion on Creative Commons’ site.) That case was similar to this one:

1. Virgin didn’t follow the license terms. They simply assumed the CC-licensed stuff was "free" and violated specifics of the license.

2. A CC license doesn’t mean you’re magically above the law. In Virgin’s case, the bigger problem was that the CC license doesn’t excuse you from the need to get a model release, legal permission to use someone’s image. When people in the photos found themselves plastered around the city without their permission, they were understandably upset — which is why the laws protecting people are in place to begin with. Now, I’ll admit, this is one rule that gets regularly ignored — but that doesn’t change the law, and it seems if you were plastering someone’s image on bus stops everywhere, you’d be more than typically cautious.

CC, of course, isn’t to blame, and far from discouraging people from using CC licenses, I think this illustrates the need for them. Bottom line:

  • CC isn’t the problem. Works released under a traditional copyright are just as susceptible to abuse as works released under a CC license. These rules are tough to enforce sometimes — but that doesn’t mean they’re not the law.
  • You still own what you make, for a reason. International and national laws protect creators from other people abusing their work. Copyright law came about because creators’ livelihoods were threatened by people stealing their output. Just because something isn’t a physical object doesn’t mean it isn’t theft if someone else takes it, especially if they call it their own. These laws hold even if you use "free", open source licenses or Creative Commons licenses. They give you the freedom to share your work in the way you want. Even the most radical advocates of these licenses believe in that right. Anyone who thinks they’re above the law because of a license is dead wrong.
  • The best enforcement is publicity. True, online access is making this kind of theft more common — but it’s also making it easier to track. Websites helped publicize all of the cases in this story. They didn’t always result in financial damages, but they did help put credit where credit was due, and often stopped the infringing activity from continuing.
  • Creative Commons is helping, not hurting. By raising the visibility of copyright issues and specific licenses, CC is activating awareness of these issues. True, some people misunderstand CC licenses as meaning something is "free" — but that’s the point of CC. People assume anything online is "free" for their use. CC puts that responsibility back in the hands of the person making the stuff, and gives them choices about how something will be used (will it be non-commercial, will other people be allowed to remix their work, etc.)?
  • Sharing is good — and you shouldn’t have to choose between sharing and your rights. The whole reason for Creative Commons is that people want to share their work, but they want some basic rights: they may not want someone making money off the result, and they will almost always want credit. The whole point of CC is that it’s your legal and ethical right to make those choices for what you’ve made.


I haven’t done it literally because I haven’t gotten around to it, but it’s time for CDM to put its license where its mouth is. We’ve already released images and videos under a Creative Commons license, and this week we’ll be changing the license for all content on the site to a Creative Commons license. (I’ll update the footer with copyright notices on all our sites soon.) The thing is, traditional copyright rules unfortunately haven’t protected us in the way we’d like anyway; it doesn’t stop people from re-purposing RSS feeds for spam blogs, for instance. But for people who do obey the rules, we’d like to encourage sharing. We’ll be working on new projects that, beyond my usual ramblings and rants, could really benefit from this license. Stay tuned.

And if you have questions about CC in general, I have some contacts that can elucidate some of these legal issues. So stay tuned — we’ll follow up on this story, and on CC legality in general.

Remember, your source for all things Creative Commons — including friendly search engines that help you find content like this Flickr images — is