The setting was the august boardroom of Goodwin Procter, a global law firm based in Boston, and the topics were the potentially dry-as-dust issues of copyrights, intellectual property rights, and fair use.
The potential clients? Seventy teenagers, engaged, enthusiastic, and most certainly culturally tuned in, from some of Greater Boston’s poorer communities.
As members of the Music & Youth Initiative, a nonprofit music training and mentoring program, they joined with three lawyers on a recent Thursday evening to understand their rights as songwriters. The teens peppered the attorneys with a variety of questions facing young musicians today: Can members of the public copy and download music they find in social media forums? What’s the legal recourse to plagiarism? How much can one “borrow” from another’s work without it being theft?
The overarching themes were avoiding legal trouble and making sure your creations can’t be weasled away from you.
“You just can’t emphasize enough how important it is to know how to protect what’s yours,” said Javon Martin, who raps under the name Yung Fresh. The 17-year-old senior at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, one of the stars of Music & Youth’s Blue Hill club as a rapper and producer, was recently tempted by a reality TV producer to sign away rights to his music, for a chance to get on television.
The Music & Youth Initiative has 12 “music clubhouse” locations in Greater Boston. The clubhouses — with top-notch recording equipment and studios, instruments, and lessons, volunteer instructors and mentors from Boston-area conservatories, and part-time clubhouse directors who coordinate lessons and activities — are housed in community centers, like Boys & Girls Clubs.
And while 400,000 kids have visited Music & Youth locations — 4,000 or so being regulars — since 2004, those at Goodwin Procter represent both blessing and curse: Their talent provides opportunity, but also makes them targets of thieves and con artists lurking on the Internet, and their enthusiasm can lead to inadvertent rule-breaking, says Gary Eichhorn, a retired technology executive who founded Music & Youth a decade ago with his wife, Joan.
Tom Hamilton, a founding member of Aerosmith and a longtime Music & Youth Initiative board member, said the workshop made him think of his band’s early days.
“Back when we were practically kids still, and somewhat naive and ignorant to how the music industry works, we gave away the rights to our publishing,” Hamilton said. “I couldn’t help but think how we could have used this workshop.”
The risks led Eichhorn to approach another Music & Youth board member, John LeClaire, a partner at Goodwin Procter.
LeClaire, who says he hopes this workshop was just the first in a series, called on Victoria Elman, a young business lawyer at Goodwin Procter, to organize and run the workshop.
“These are talented young people,” Elman says. “We didn’t want them getting in trouble for using someone else’s work when they shouldn’t, and we definitely didn’t want them losing their work either. So we just wanted to make this a learning experience and fun.”
Fun indeed. From the first moments of the workshop the atmosphere was energetic and tense, occasionally broken up by raucous laughter, as Elman used big video screens to show examples of fair use of others’ work versus downright theft.
Knowing they only had a couple of hours, the teens, brows furrowed, wasted no time trying to outdo each other in terms of number and quality of questions asked. Those who asked smart questions, like what they should do about a creepy self-proclaimed producer they had met online recently, were met with nods of approval and applause. Those who merely spouted off inaccurate theories about how much of someone else’s music they could borrow — one young man insisted, wrongly, that using no more than a seven-second sample of another’s music, even without permission, is perfectly legal — were met with good-natured teasing and catcalls.
There was a video of music by mashup guru Gregg Gillis, also known as Girl Talk, famous for sampling more than 300 artists (without their permission) on his 2010 album “All Day,” which was released by a record label called Illegal Art. The New York Times called Girl Talk’s music a “lawsuit waiting to happen.”
And there were side-by-side videos of rapper Vanilla Ice’s 1990 hit “Ice Ice Baby” and Queen’s 1981 song “Under Pressure,” as well as the videos for rapper MC Hammer’s 1990 blockbuster “U Can’t Touch This” and rocker Rick James’s 1981 hit “Super Freak.” It did not take the kids long to spot some troubling, and potentially illegal, similarities.
They were especially amused by a video clip of Ice trying to explain in a TV interview that he didn’t steal “Under Pressure’s” beat, because his had an extra “ting ting” sound to it.
“He stole it,” some shouted of Ice and Hammer. “That’s not cool,” others chimed in. And “Did he get sued?” Answer: Ice was sued before settling, and Hammer settled without a fight.
Elman tossed swag kits to kids who asked good questions or answered them well, and Kaya Andrews may have been her biggest recipient.
Andrews, 12, and a student at the Pierce School in Brookline, has been writing music at Music & Youth’s Yawkey clubhouse since she was 9. She asked Elman questions like when can one artist completely replicate another’s song. Answer: When the new version of the song is a parody.
Rick Aggeler, senior music clubhouse director for Boys & Girls Clubs in Boston and the Blue Hill Music Clubhouse director for Music & Youth, was thrilled at the direction the workshop took.
“It was exactly what I’d hoped it would be,” said Aggeler, who attended with several kids from the Blue Hill Clubhouse. “It is common these days for many of my kids to get approached on social media by people claiming to be artists or executives asking if the kids are interested in collaborating or ‘sharing’ a beat. You have to be careful who you work with and who you give access to your work.”
Martin, or Yung Fresh, has performed for big crowds at music festivals and even opened for rap star Mac Miller in front of an audience of about 50,000 at the 2012 Boston Urban Music Festival. And when his mixtape, “Paramount,” debuted last March, the same day as the popular police documentary show “Boston’s Finest,” “Paramount” out-trended the TV show on Twitter in the Boston market the entire day.
Martin wanted to know how to deal with the overtures that Aggeler alluded to, like that of the TV producer who wanted to have him on a show called “America’s Next Top Rapper.”
Martin said there was a provision in that TV show contract that would have restricted him from using any of his original music in any forum without permission from the show’s producers. The show never took off, and Martin was able to get out of the contract.
Based on what he now knows, he realizes the risk he took: “It’s scary to think that my whole career could have been out of my control, in strangers’ hands.”