How My Music Was Plagiarized for Profit and How I Fought Back
Late August 2013, my music was been stolen, rebranded, and sold across every major music store and streaming service online. Over 150 instances were found on sites like iTunes and Spotify, and countless more appeared on illegal networks. I felt trapped, suffocated by the enormity of things. Still, with a lot of effort, I managed to take back most of what was mine, and thanks to the kindness of others, even come out ahead.
If you’re a creator, I pray you never find yourself here, but if you do, here’s my story and how you can fight back.
The Music Stolen
I’ve spent a lot of time deliberating over music. I lost a decade to tinkering because I lacked confidence.
Over the years, I’ve started hundreds of projects and canned just as many. There’s always been a disconnect between what I imagined and what I made. Nothing made the cut.
Come 2012, I had enough. I was determined to make my start in music, but I knew I had a skill deficit to overcome.
To close the gap, I began fiftytwocreatives, a project where I would start and finish a unique creative concept every week – often musical in nature – and release it publicly each Sunday.
The project proved fruitful. After much studying and grinding, I learned the skills I needed to actualize my ideas. Once slow and uncertain, I became fluid and sure. One concept in particular, “Into Ether”, was very dear to me. A floaty, piano-driven piece with a dubstep-inspired crescendo, spurred on an collection of songs which ultimately became my inaugural release, “Into Ether EP”.
It was simple, and it was flawed, but it was something I could be proud of.
And then it was taken from me.
On August 24th, after spending two months in Asia, I was greeted with several copyright notices from YouTube.
“Curious,” I whispered to myself.
I checked the warnings. Marked by Kontor New Media, I was told my uploads infringed on tracks by someone named “Joseph Ti”.
“Probably a false flag,” I thought.
A nervous search for Joseph Ti brought me to Beatport. Familiar-sounding titles filled the charts.
I gritted my teeth, “Into The Deep? No …”
With a deep breath, I reached for the play button. Those familiar chords played out. It was Into Ether.
My eyes widened. My stomach churned. The world span beneath me.
This wasn’t someone borrowing a melody or a progression. This was my music verbatim, stripped from somewhere, renamed, and sold.
“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 feel my lunch moving up my throat.
I went on a hunt for Joseph Ti, but to no avail. He had my music everywhere, but he was only a name. He wasn’t real, a ghost alias used to rip me off.
I had to fight back, but I had no target. I searched for him, starting from the bottom: the stores.
Fighting Back: The Approach and Preparation
Before I dive in, know that kindness is king. While you need be firm with what you want, understand that the stores, labels, distributors, and any others in between are not at fault. It’s 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, you have to prove your claim. If you’re not keeping records and securing your work in permanent, public, time-stamped mediums, please start now.
My proof lay with YouTube. Thankfully, I used each song in a series of pre-release videos. Each upload had an unmoveable date of publication preceding all plagiarized instances by several months. Whether or not these would hold in court, I cannot say, but they helped establish that I was the rightful owner with the intermediaries.
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; companies will also require the URLs of the infringing content for takedowns to happen.
Before you contact anyone, take screenshots of all offending 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 will get the job done.
Fighting Back: YouTube
YouTube was my biggest worry as its support processes are automated. Disputes are siloed down specific paths, whether or not they fit that course. I feared my case would get stuck in limbo without resolution.
I filed my counter notification (which is delivered to the claiming party), but to be doubly sure, I approached Kontor New Media myself.
Three emails were answered with silence. Moving to a public forum, a Facebook post was met quickly 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.
If you end up in dispute with Kontor or another large distributor, be persistent and try them on them on public channels. Sometimes, when inboxes get full, social media is the better way to get attention.
Fighting Back: The Stores and Streamers
It often gets a bad rap, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (better known as the DMCA) is amazing. Although it’s a US standard, this template was accepted internationally. For most sites, the offending material was removed within days of sending the notice. For others, I’m still waiting, but having the tool sped things 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 its own proprietary form. For international sites, you’ll often find them at [email protected][domain].com or [email protected][domain].com. If not there, general channels can often pass you along to the right person.
When sending takedown requests, ask who distributed the music and about any royalties accrued. Stores and streaming services seldom deal directly with artists, but instead use intermediaries called distributors to streamline the process. Stores and streamers 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 he was on vacation. So grateful for them!
Fighting Back: The Distributors
As with the stores, each distributor was sent a DMCA notice, tailored to the releases they handled. Each was kind and quick to act, sending another wave of takedowns from their side. The number of plagiarized instances finally 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 any misaligned royalties. Even now, he continues to help me with takedowns.
Your mileage may vary, but if you can find a Jason to back you up, your work will be much easier. Be sure to ask questions at this junction; the distributors are likely what separates you from the offending parties and will know them and the situation best. Should you pursue litigation, you should find out as much as you can.
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 pirate sites.
Unlike the legitimate services, few (if any) piracy sites acknowledge takedown notices. Even if they had, there were too many to deal with. Thankfully, there are automated processes.
Topple Track – a system that does the heavy lifting for crushing pirated material – managed all of the underground links distributing the infringements. At the time of writing, they have removed 131 pirated copies. Instances of Joseph Ti still appear in search, but the numbers have decreased appreciably.
Thankfully, all wasn’t dark on the file sharing front; I managed to find a handful of new fans on YouTube.
During my search, I found a small group who uploaded videos under Joseph Ti. I gently explained my situation to them and everyone responded with love. Most removed their videos, but a few opted to rename their clips instead, pointing to my channels and sending folks my way. Very cool of them.
The hard truth is that Joseph Ti is still out there – and likely will be forever.
Spotify (removed!), Shazam (in process), 7 Digital (removed!), and Musicload (removed!) still list plagiarized content. Last.fm continues to track scrobbles. Pirates perpetuate the spread of mislabeled material.
Folks have suggested that I could have registered my copyright to avoid this situation. In Canada, copyright is automatic as soon as someone hits save. Sadly, that registration didn’t offer anything for prevention, but it could have helped in litigation, should I have chosen to pursue it.
While it’s frustrating that so much is left, my fight is over. Most instances on legitimate sites have been shuttered. My music, now properly named, has taken Joseph Ti’s place in stores, streamers, and YouTube’s systems.
While it’s not the happiest ending, at least there’s a semblance of closure. Thank you again to all of the brilliant, kind-hearted people who helped me through this. I’m so lucky to have you guys!
The Post-Reddit Update (2013/11/22)
I’ve never seen my server seize up the way it did last night. You guys hit it hard! Thank you all for your kindness and support! I spent many hours 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! Someone will steal it!
It’s scary, but even after being on the receiving end, I can still say with full confidence that you should still share your work. I’m a photographer, too; misappropriation happens a lot.
The truth is that we’re going to get hurt, if not by theft, than by rejection or any number of other things. You know what though? We have missions to fulfill. They can rob us of our work, but if we never put things out there, then they’ve robbed us of our purpose, and that’s so much worse. We need to move forward.
It’s just one blip. I moved beyond it and so can you!
I bet you’re not the only one this has happened to.
No, I’m not. Some folks have reached out sharing similar stories; most never got closure. Then there are all of the compilations Joseph Ti appeared on:
- 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
- Cartoon Fresh
- Easy Summer
- Litova Records
- Magnetic United
- Somnambulist Records
“Tracks For Your Listening Pleasure 015” – really? That just screams cash grab. I can’t say if it’s all fraudulent material, but I can verify I’m not the only one in there under someone else’s name.
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 wasn’t $5 as some might have guessed, but it’s also not a figure I’m losing sleep over. The real loss here comes from brand damage. Even if I never recover a single penny, I’m okay – but I’m going to shut down as much of this as I can!
You should have registered your copyright before posting it online!
In Canada, creative works are automatically registered for copyright 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 was to litigate, that registration would help!
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 think visibility and reach would have been the best defense.
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 individual instead of a label manager, which is a very unusual practice. Still, I don’t know for certain, and I’m reluctant to name parties without unshakable evidence. I don’t want to ruin someone just because I’m 99.5% sure he screwed me over.
As far as lawsuits go, I won’t be pursuing litigation. This comment summarizes my thoughts well.
You should keep your project files as proof of ownership.
Very true! I actually made a point to the stores, streamers, and distributors that I was the sole holder of the project files in each takedown request. 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 could have helped proving ownership.
We want to hear your music on our favourite sites! Maybe even for free?
And I’d 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 talk on television via Steele on Your Side with Lynda Steele on CTV News British Columbia and on 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.
It Happened Again (2016/02/11)
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it happened again. Same songs stolen. Same aliases used. Same party sending it out to distributors. Thankfully iTunes and Spotify are on their game and resolution’s come swiftly, but the gall of this person. I need to find a way to send a strong message, but I need to do it tactfully and kindly. It’s hard.