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Grey Tuesday: Copyright or Wrong?

This copyright showdown isn’t as clear as black and white.

Today has been dubbed Grey Tuesday by the music activist group Downhill Battle, which is heading up an effort by some 200 Websites to make available the Grey Album, a controversial new remix disc by hip-hop deejay-producer Danger Mouse.

In the spirit of bastard pop bootlegs or “mash-ups,” the L.A.-based Danger Mouse lifted the vocal tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and dropped them over new musical tracks created by reworking the Beatles’ White Album. The resulting disc, The Grey Album, was originally distributed undergound in very limited release but has since blown up on file-sharing sites like Morpheus and KaZaA and in turn has incensed music giant EMI, which controls the Beatles catalog.

According to Downhill Battle, Grey Tuesday (greytuesday.org) is intended day of protest against EMI’s cease-and-desist order to prevent The Grey Album from getting into the public’s hands. Downhill Battle says it has the “fair-use right to post this music under current copyright law and the public has a fair-use right to hear it.”

But the EMI legal department, which says Danger Mouse neither paid for or obtained the rights to these samples, apparently intends to take action against any website that makes the music available.

Ultimately, it is unclear what type of action EMI will take. None of the sites is profiting from the download, and the music was provided to the various sites by legal means. Still, many of the sites have received their own cease-and-desist letters, which most seem content to ignore. (Jay-Z’s label, Def Jam, has not been drawn in to the legal bickering.)

Downhill Battle, which is documenting the legal wrangling on its site, downhillbattle.org, hopes Grey Tuesday will reveal “how the major record labels stifle creativity and try to manipulate the public’s access to music, and it’s the perfect way to explain to non-experts why the copyright system needs to be reformed.”

Danger Mouse, born Brian Burton, didn’t intend to spark such a reaction, but he calls it all flattering. “I did this project because I love the Beatles and Jay-Z,” he says in a statement. “I knew when I produced The Grey Album that there might be questions and issues that this project would bring up, but I really don’t know the answers to many of them. It was not meant to be anything but an artistic expression, and I still hope that that is the way it’s perceived.”

For those seeking less controversial material by Danger Mouse, the deejay recently released Ghetto Pop Life (Lex/Warp Records) with Gemini and has produced such artists as Prince Po, Tha Alkaholiks, MF Doom and Cee-Lo. His Website, djdangermouse.com, features a free download as well as more information on the making of The Grey Album.

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