Tuesday 26 February 2013

What the Harlem Shake can teach us about copyright

This morning I read an interesting blog post  on TechCrunch by Josh Constine on the science behind why the Harlem Shake is so popular, and it made me wonder whether copyright could learn a thing or two from the Harlem Shake.

For those of you who have been blissfully unaware of the phenomenon, the Harlem Shake is a 30 second video, initially created by five Australian teenagers in their Sunny Coast Skate, in which one person dances whilst everyone around them ignores them. After 14 seconds the video cuts to everyone dancing like a loon, generally wearing some kind of fancy dress. The sound track is the Harlem Shake, by US DJ Baauer.
The formula took off and has been repeated thousands of times worldwide. The concept is incredibly simply and easily personalised, and the videos are only 30 seconds long. So, as Constine comments, the end product is "remarkably snackable".

Constine goes on to call the Harlem Shake a "symbiotic meme". He says that "when content creators serve up a meme with an equation full of variables, people remix the variables, and share the product to their own networks. The audience becomes curious about what the source content was. This floods traffic back to the original or flagship version of the meme." The symbiotic relationship is caused by the original meme being so easy to copy that many do copy it, and because so many copies are produced the original becomes notorious in its own right.
It's an interesting concept which brings to mind the success of Psy's Gangnam Style (see here): so many people copied the video that the Gangnam Style dance went viral causing Psy's original to become hugely popular. To give an idea of the scale of the Harlem Shake's success, the Sunny Coast Skate was uploaded on 2 February. According to Wikipedia, on 10 February, the upload rate of Harlem Shake videos reached 4,000 per day. As of 11 February, about 12,000 versions had been uploaded to YouTube, with over 44 million unique views. By 15 February, about 40,000 Harlem Shake videos had been uploaded, totalling 175 million views. That's a crazy rate which most marketers would aspire to.

To be clear, it is unlikely that the Harlem Shake concept would be protected by copyright, as it is an idea or a formula for a video rather than a work itself. However the unprecedented success of the original (the Sunny Coast Skate has been viewed over 17 million times on YouTube) is surely something which rightsholders aspire to. Forgoing copyright and actively encouraging copies is not a strategy that would work for all rightsholders by any means, but it is trend that we are seeing more and more in popular culture and is one that rightsholders might want to at least consider.
As a side note, Baauer hasn't done too badly out of this either. With the exception of a takedown notice issued when established artist Azealia Banks uploaded her own version of the track, Baauer and his label, Mad Decent records, have made use of YouTube's Content ID database to assert copyright over the fan-made videos and to claim a proportion of advertising revenue in respect of each one. This is a bit of a change from what we're used to seeing from music rights holders, and is a change that seemingly benefits everyone.

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