Boston pop violinist and recording artist Rhett Price has experienced a great deal in his 28 years. The Berklee-trained musician was briefly homeless as a young man before becoming a YouTube sensation, with videos of pop and rock songs that have collectively racked up tens of millions of views.
But little prepared Price for what he saw in July when he clicked on a Facebook video one of his fans had alerted him to. In the video, a violinist was performing covers of Major Lazer’s “Lean On” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” at a bar in Trinidad and Tobago. The artist, a man named Shiva Chaitoo, was a charismatic performer — he grinned at the camera and even leaned in, giving viewers a look at how fast his fingers were moving on the fingerboard. “I can listen to this guy play all day,” said one commenter. “Great to see local talent!” posted another. The video, Price could see, had gotten more than a quarter-million views.
The problem was that Chaitoo appeared to be performing over tracks Price had recorded and posted online himself. The eye-opening discovery launched Price on a journey that has shed light on the limits of copyright law in the age of user-generated content and the vagaries of fame in the Internet era.
“I could immediately tell he didn’t know how to play the violin, just from the way he was holding it,” Price told the Globe. “And the positions his fingers were in, anyone who plays violin could just tell that it was impossible for the notes that people were hearing to be coming from that instrument.”
To hear the video above, right-click and choose “unmute.”
Price, a Texas native and former Berklee College of Music student with more than 83,000 subscribers on YouTube, soon found more videos, the oldest dating to early 2015, of Chaitoo apparently performing along with tracks Price had previously recorded.
When contacted by the Globe, Chaitoo insisted he had been playing live. “I just really like Rhett’s style a lot,” he said.
But in a later phone call with Price arranged by the Globe, Chaitoo broke down in tears when Price accused him of stealing his music.
Taciturn at first, the Trinidadian defended himself by saying Price’s music inspired his own. “I respect you as an artist, and I am your No. 1 fan,” Chaitoo told Price. “I would love to be able to play with you. I wouldn’t do anything to cause you disrespect.”
“I try to incorporate your style into most of my music,” Chaitoo added. “I am new to this type of general music and I don’t want any trouble. I come from a humble home. I don’t charge people a lot of money. I will do my own stuff in the future in terms of being more creative.”
Chaitoo, who said he has been playing violin for 12 years, has been hired to play at weddings and parties, and claimed that he even performed for the president of Trinidad and Tobago in August 2016. He said his charges range from $300 for a 10- to 15-minute performance at a party to $1,000 for a wedding.
Meanwhile Price played in subway stations and was homeless in 2010 before his career gained momentum. On YouTube, his covers of hit songs such as Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” and Drake’s “Hotline Bling” collectively have had more than 30 million views.
He released his first EP in 2015, “Kesha’s Mom,” featuring both covers and original material by Price. The violinist has also played in shows with artists such as Aaron Carter and Machine Gun Kelly, accompanied Boston Ballet at New York’s Lincoln Center, and frequently performs at colleges around the country.
“Regardless of how many years I’ve been doing this for, I’m still shocked that I have fans,” Price told Chaitoo, who had been crying. “I’m thankful for that. That part of me appreciates what you’re saying. But the part of me that was homeless in Boston, and played in subways, and stole granola bars from little convenience stores so I could survive while I was chasing my dreams is so pissed that someone else took the music I worked years for and just ran with it. . . . As long as you’re making other people happy by playing violin, then I’m all about it. I think violin is amazing, obviously. But I need to make sure for a fact that you’re absolutely never going to use my music in public ever again.”
Chaitoo responded: “I swear on my life that this will never happen again. I really, really apologize.”
Dolly Jagasar hired Chaitoo to play at her wedding in 2012. She liked his performance so much that he was hired again in 2014 to play at her sister’s wedding. Jagasar said the violinist played a medley of Indian film songs with a live band.
“This is actually quite shocking for me,” she said. “My husband grew up in Trinidad and he knows Chaitoo from when he started his music. When I spoke to him about this, he immediately said, ‘No, Chaitoo does his own music.’ ”
Price has contacted Joe Bennett, an expert witness forensic musicologist and the vice president for academic affairs at the Boston Conservatory, to back up his suspicions. Bennett confirmed via e-mail that after an audio waveform analysis, he was 95 percent certain Chaitoo was “simply passing off [Price’s] recordings as his.”
Price also sent the files to Vince Lee, a former associate conductor for the Indianapolis Symphony and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, who agreed with Bennett’s analysis while noting that on at least one video, Chaitoo appeared to be playing his violin at a lower volume underneath Price’s recordings.
“Bad lip syncers are easy for laypeople to spot, as we all deal with spoken language our entire lives,” Lee wrote in an e-mail. “It’s much harder for non-musicians to spot ‘finger syncers,’ as the specific, nuanced motions of an instrumentalist are not part of their everyday life.”
Price may have few legal remedies, if he were to pursue one. Paul Litwin, a partner at Boston entertainment law firm Shames & Litwin, said Price may have given up more rights to his music than he intended when he began posting videos to YouTube and offering listeners free downloads in exchange for e-mail addresses. YouTube’s terms of service stipulate that uploaders grant YouTube “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use.”
“If you buy and download a song, you can pretend to play and sing along to it,” Litwin said. “By posting his music on YouTube, Rhett is allowing the YouTube community to use it. Shiva isn’t posting videos saying he’s Rhett, so from a legal standpoint, he does not appear to be infringing copyright laws.”
However, Litwin said that if Chaitoo continues to do this, his audiences are not getting what they paid for.
Price does not plan on taking further action against Chaitoo, but he says he is concerned that the Trinidadian will continue to use his tracks.
“This has all just been kind of a crazy ride,” Price said. “It does feel unfair. But at the end of the day, I’m not trying to mess anyone’s life up. I just want him to stop.”Bethany Ao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethanyao.