My music stolen, rebranded, and exploited for profit.

Late August, I learned my music had been appropriated, rebranded, and sold across every major music store and streaming service including iTunes, Beatport, Amazon, Spotify, and Deezer.  Over 150 instances were found in legitimate sites, not to mention the countless appearing on illegal networks.

I pray you never find yourself here, but if you do, here’s how I fought back.

The Music Stolen

I’ve spent a lot of time deliberating over music.  Far too much.  I’ve lost a decade to tinkering.

Over the years, I’ve started hundreds of projects, but canned just as many. There’s always been a disconnect between what I imagined and what I produced. No song made the cut.

Come 2012, it was time for a change.  I was determined to make my start, but I knew I had a skill deficit to overcome.

To close the gap, I began fiftytwocreatives.  Each week, I would start and finish a unique concept – often musical in nature – and release it for public consumption come Sunday.

The project proved fruitful. Once slow and uncertain, I became fluid and sure. I wasn’t done learning – as I trust I’ll never be – but I knew how to actualize my ideas.  I hold one in particular, “Into Ether”, very dear.  A floaty, piano-driven piece with a dubstep-inspired crescendo, the track set the tone for my inaugural release, “Into Ether EP”.

It was simple, and it wasn’t perfect, but I finally had a body of work I was proud of.

And then it got plagiarized.

The Notice

On August 24th, I was greeted by YouTube with several copyright notices waiting for me.

“Curious,” I whispered to myself.

Allegedly, my videos infringed on tracks registered to a someone named “Joseph Ti” via Kontor New Media.

“Surely, a computer error,” I thought.  I was wrong.  I was so very wrong.

A nervous search for Joseph Ti brought me to Beatport.  Familiar-sounding titles filled the charts.

“Into The Deep? No …”

I took a deep breath and reluctantly hit play.  Those familiar chords played out.

My eyes widened and my stomach churned.

This wasn’t someone borrowing a melody – or even all of them.  No, this was my music, stripped from Soundcloud, renamed, and sold for profit.

“Uncharted” became “Tomorrow”.
“Aeolus” became “Voice of the Wind”.
“Into Ether” became “Into the Deep”.
“Halcyon” became “Impassive”.

“Aeolus” already means wind.  “Into the Deep” – really?  And Joseph Ti?  They didn’t even try to cover this.

I was livid.  Seething.  Even now, I can feel my lunch moving up my throat.

I searched desperately for Joseph Ti, but to no avail. He had my music in every major store and streaming service, but beyond that, I couldn’t find him or his labels.  He was invisible and impossible to reach – a ghost alias used explicitly to rip me off.

So, I started at the bottom.

Fighting Back: The Approach and Preparation

Before I dive in, know that kindness is king. No one wants to help a jerk.  While you need be stern with what you want, understand that the intermediaries you meet are not at fault.  In my experience, they’ve all been sympathetic to my plight.  It’s also in their best interest to avoid litigation and they will likely help where they can.

Documentation will save you time and heartache.  Should this ever befall you, the onus is yours to prove your claim.  If you’re not keeping records and securing your work in permanent, public, time-stamped mediums, start now.

My proof lay with YouTube.  Thankfully, I had used each song from “Into Ether EP” in a video leading up to its release.  Each upload had an unmoveable date of publication, preceding all plagiarized instances by months.   Whether or not these would hold in court, I cannot say, but they were enough for me to get takedowns.

Come infringement, scour Google and log every instance of plagiarism you find.  Search for the artist and song title in quotation marks (e.g. “Joseph Ti” “Into The Deep”) for exact results.  Collect as much information as you can about the infringement (including, but not exclusive to) song titles, artist names, album titles, and associated labels; at the very least, sites will require the URLs of the content in question.

Before you contact anyone, take screenshots of all infringing content as these listings will change once takedowns are processed.  Screen Capture for Google Chrome and FireShot for Firefox are both simple, free tools that should help.

Fighting Back: YouTube

YouTube was my biggest worry.  As a Google entity, everything about it is automated.  Disputes are siloed down specific paths, whether or not they fit that course.  I feared my case would get stuck in limbo and without resolution, YouTube – the second-largest search engine in the world – would forever mark my music as Joseph Ti’s.

I filed my counter notification (which is supposed to be delivered to the claiming party), but to be doubly sure, I approached Kontor New Media myself.

My emails were answered with silence.  A public Facebook post was quickly met with assurances that all would be solved, but it wasn’t until my fourth letter that my notice was acknowledged and resolved.  Thankfully, one of their junior staff reached out and helped me remove the material from YouTube’s Content ID system, albeit a painful 19 days after my first notice.

Kontor’s one of the larger distributors, so if you end up in dispute with them or another major, I advise persistence and trying them on public channels.  Sometimes, when inboxes get full, social media is the better way to get attention.

Fighting Back: The Stores and Streamers

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (better known as the DMCA) is amazing.  Although a US standard, this template was graciously accepted internationally.  For most sites, the offending material was removed within days of sending the takedown notice.  For others, I’m still waiting, but having the tool sped the overall process along greatly.

Once you’ve filled in the template, you’ll need to find the right department.  For American sites, there’s a comprehensive list of copyright departments.  iTunes has a proprietary form.  For international sites, you’ll often find them at [email protected] or [email protected]  If not there, general channels can often pass you along to the right person.

In your dealings, ask about who distributed the music and about royalty reporting.  Stores and streaming services seldom deal directly with artists, but instead use intermediaries called distributors to streamline the process.  Stores and streaming services can help you determine financial damages, but it’ll be the distributors who can help you find your thief.

* You guys should know that iTunes and Deezer are awesome.  I can’t name specifics about iTunes, but Deezer’s Justin Erdman made a point to make sure everything was taken care of – while on vacation.  So much gratitude to both groups!

Fighting Back: The Distributors

As with the stores, each distributor was sent a DMCA notice, tailored to their releases.  Each was empathic and quick to act, sending another wave of takedowns from their end.  The number of plagiarized releases began to dwindle.

While each distributor was helpful, Proton SoundSystem, or more specifically, its CEO, Jason Wohlstadter, went above and beyond.  Jason took the time to walk me through the situation, introduce me to the offending parties, and set up an account to assign me the misaligned royalties.  Even now, he continues to help me with takedowns.

Your mileage may vary, but if you can find a Jason Wohlstadter to back you up, your ordeal will be much shorter and much less painful.  If you’re going to find answers, be sure to ask at this junction; the distributors are the direct contact of the offending parties, and should you pursue litigation, you’ll need their information.

Fighting Back: The Pirates

With stores and distributors closing the gap on both ends, I was eager to end this debacle, but then came the pirates.

Steal my music?  I can accept that and can even appreciate the exposure.  Steal my music with someone else’s name on it?  Oh, man. I wanted to hurl.

Unlike stores and streaming services, few piracy sites acknowledge takedown notices.  The ones that do were too many to count and difficult to reach.

Enter Topple Track – an automated system that does the heavy lifting for crushing pirated material.  Although outside of their usual routine, they took to my situation, and to date, have removed 131 pirated copies.  Instances of Joseph Ti still appear in search, but the numbers have decreased appreciably and I’ve yet to try manual submissions.

While this scar may be permanent, at least now I have a bandage to hide – and I hope with time – heal it.

Thankfully, all wasn’t dark on the piracy front, either; through this process, I managed to win over a handful of new fans.

During my search for pirated material, I found a small group who uploaded the plagiarized material to YouTube.  If this happens to you, approach these people with kindness; these are folks who enjoy your music, albeit under someone else’s name.  I gently explained my situation to them and everyone responded with sympathy.  Most removed their videos, while others opted to rename their clips, but they all still gravitate around my feeds and I’m very happy to have them.

The Aftermath

The hard truth is that Joseph Ti is still out there – and likely will be for a very long time, if not forever.  Spotify (removed!), Shazam (in process), 7 Digital (removed!), and Musicload still list plagiarized content.  Last.fm continues to track scrobbles. Pirates perpetuate the spread of mislabeled material.

Many people have suggested that I register my copyright. In Canada, copyright is automatic as soon as one affixes their creation to a physical or digital medium. Even if my work was registered, I doubt the guilty party checked or cared.  Registration doesn’t offer anything for prevention, but it does help in litigation – which is something I won’t be pursuing.  It’s time to let this go.

While it’s frustrating that so much is left, my fight is over. Most income sources have been shuttered. My music is now in stores, streaming sites, and YouTube’s Content ID system, so hopefully, this won’t happen again without duplication flags going off.  All I can do from here is grow.

There’s no happy ending here, but at least with this post, I can finally move on.  Heaven forbid this ever happen to you, but if it does, I hope my story helps.

Thank you again to all of the brilliant, kind-hearted people who helped me through this.  As always, I’m so lucky to have you guys!

The Post-Reddit Update (2013/11/22)

I’ve never seen my server seize the way it did last night.  Thank you all for your kindness and support!  Spent late hours resizing and optimizing things, so we should have smooth(er) sailing from here.

There’ve been a lot of great comments coming out of social channels, and there are a few recurring themes I want to tackle:

That’s horrible and this is why I don’t post my work; I’m scared someone will steal it.

I know it’s hard to believe, but as the person in this story, I can still say with full confidence that you should still share your work.  I’m a photographer, too; misappropriation happens a lot.

We put ourselves out there, and we’re probably going to get hurt – be it by theft, or rejection, or heartache – but we’re there for something greater, and ultimately, that’s worth the pain.

We leave our homes every day, and by being outside, maybe we won’t make it home at night, but there’s so much of the world to see. We should see it!

You work hard for your craft. I’ve likely not experienced it, but I’d be sad if I didn’t get the chance.

Should a time come where you are facing theft, I hope this article helps you take it down quickly and judiciously.  It’s just one blip.  You can move beyond it and onto better things.

Don’t let the jerks win.  Go get that dream!

I bet you’re not the only one this has happened to.

No – I’m not.  I’m not at liberty to name this person (yet), but I found another artist in the same situation; our material was being sold on the same compilation.  I’ve reached out to him, and hopefully, I can bring him on board for this.  He’s really talented and deserves some closure.

I don’t doubt that there’s more.  Just look at these compilations:

  • Astrolabe Chill 02
  • Bora Bora Chill
  • Bora Bora Beach Chill
  • Chillout Session 04
  • Chillout Session 05
  • Chillout Shock 11
  • Everest Relax 02
  • Moonlight Chill
  • Moonlight Chill 03
  • Moonlight Chill 04
  • Moonlight Chill Vol 02
  • Slow Time 05
  • The Best of Chillstep 2013
  • Top 20 Chillstep
  • Top 30 Fresh Chillout
  • TOP25 Chill Emotion
  • Tracks For Your Listening Pleasure 015
  • Tracks For Your Listening Pleasure 016

… published by these labels:

  • Astrolabe Recordings
  • Aventuel
  • Cartoon Fresh
  • Easy Summer
  • Litova Records
  • Magnetic United
  • Slowmore
  • Somnambulist Records
  • Sunboom

If you’ve been wrongfully featured on these compilations or by these labels, we should talk.

* Huge disclaimer: this list is not here to condemn anyone.  I was hesitant to post it as there may be legitimate artists on the other end, but “Tracks For Your Listening Pleasure 015″ – really?  Please, no malice with this information, but do keep an eye out.

How much money did Joseph Ti make off your music?

I’m afraid I only have a partial picture of that.  Some storefronts provided royalty statements, but not all.  Same for the distributors.  It definitely wasn’t $5 as some might have guessed, but it’s not a figure I’m losing sleep over.  The real loss here comes from brand damage and defamation.  Even if I never recover a single penny from this ordeal, I’m okay – but I’m going to shut down as much of this as I can get my music back!

You should have registered your copyright before posting it online!

In Canada, a work is automatically copyrighted as soon as one affixes their creation to a physical or digital medium.  Registering helps in proving ownership, but it doesn’t protect me from brazen cash grabs like this.  It’s more reactionary than defensive.  That said, if I were to litigate, that registration would help immensely.

What I should have done from the start – and did as soon as I could – was distribute my material to the larger stores (although the album was always on Bandcamp), streaming services, and Content ID.  I imagine each store would have duplicate content flags, but if not, then at least I could say I published it first.

Did you ever find Joseph Ti?  What are you going to do with him?

I did! – or at least, the person collecting the royalties.  I was told revenues for “Joseph Ti” were assigned to this party instead of the label manager.  Very fishy. There’s absolutely underhanded play happening – but probably by this individual and not the label.  Still, I don’t know for certain, and I’m reluctant to name parties without unshakable evidence.  I can’t ruin someone just because I’m 99.5% sure he screwed me over.

As far as law suits go, no I won’t be pursuing litigation.  This comment sums up my thoughts perfectly.  That said, the person be receiving an email with this article the Reddit post, kindly suggesting he stop.  I’ll leave him to infer the alternate course.

You should keep your project files as proof of ownership.

Very true!  I actually made a point that I was the sole holder of the project files in each of the takedown notices.  These files were also in email backups long before the material went live. I didn’t have to use them, but had this case gone further, they would have been huge in proving ownership.

We want to hear your music on our favourite sites!  Maybe even for free?

And I’ll gladly oblige!  Here’s a list of major sites you can find my work on, most of which offer full, unlimited streams:

The Post-Media Update (2014/01/17)

The ball keeps rolling! Since this post went up, I’ve had a chance to appear on television via Steele on Your Side with Lynda Steele on CTV News British Columbia and radio via The Shift with Mike Mike Eckford on CKNW. A giant thank you to Marc Smith for making the connections!

For the readers who prefer French, The Pink Beaver from France was kind enough to translate an interview as well.