Jay-Z is one of the most successful hip hop artists of all time, turned entrepreneur his business empire stretches out across the music, retail and sports industry’s with less subtly than America’s foreign policy over the last fifty years.
Brash, ruthless and expansion without impunity. I imagine his success extends far beyond the dreams of a young boy growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. Now I don’t begrudge anybody success, but somewhere down the line, maybe its his beautiful wife, the cigars or the addictive synapses money and fame release into the brain that hip hops former poster child has lost his way.
As I listen to The Blueprint for free on Youtube, its hard to imagine that the pre-packaged, rap-for-middle-class-white-kids he now sells under the guise of being an ‘artist’ is the same person. The Blueprint is considered a masterpiece at a time when hip hop was being overran with mediocrity. Unfortunately, after decades of success he know raps for the consumer, not for the streets. As I found to my delight, Chris Richards of The Washington Post writes of Magna Carta, “There’s no mood, no verve, no vision to this music. It’s the sound of champagne being sprayed around an empty locker room.” I’d like to sum it up better myself but there’s no point, the phrase, ‘hit the nail on the head’ has never been appropriate.
Herein lies the rotten, hypocritical core of the problem, in this small tale of copyright infringement I’m about to tell… If someone sampled one of his songs without asking, I’m sure he’d set his wife’s sister to come and attack you in a lift.
My friend Bjorn is a digital designer and general internet badass. He’s the guy behind stuff like http://bigassmessage.com and Remember Marlo Stanfield. His website, called Bad.Mean.Good, can be found here: http://badmeangood.com/.
One of his major projects is designing fonts. His most popular font is called, Camcorder. The font has become popular in online design circles, and is used quite frequently by digital designers for all kinds of projects (for example, on Reddit). Bjorn uses the font himself to brand all his projects.
While Camcorder is freely downloadable from his website, people almost always ask Bjorn before using it. Several large corporations, including even Electronic Arts, have asked his permission to use the font. Depending on the project, he has agreed to the usage for free or for a minimal cost. Like a picture on Facebook or an image on an artist’s website, copyright inheres in online works (with fonts, it inheres particularly in the code, which were created by Bjorn), and, just because they are freely downloadable, permission must still be granted by the copyright owner before it is used for commercial purposes. This is why advertising agencies can’t simply download your Facebook pictures and use them to promote their products.
Picasso may have said, “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal”, but Picasso never got caught.
However, on August 2nd, 2013, Jay-Z’s music video for “Picasso Baby” dropped. Like all music videos, it was released to promote Jay-Z’s new album, Magna Carta Holy Grail. But this wasn’t just any music video. The video is a so-called “art performance”, in which Jay-Z raps his song for a bunch of celebrities at an art gallery in New York City. The song, by the way, is about him being rich and wanting to be richer so he can buy expensive paintings. Here’s a lyric: Oh what a feeling/fuck it, I want a billion/Jeff Koons Ballons/I just want to blowup/Condos in my condos/I want a row of Christie’s with my missy/live at the MoMA/Bacons and turkey bacons/smell the aroma.
The video of this so-called collaborative “performance art”, depicts the promotions that occurred before the event. Banners on the streets of New York city. Private invitations extended to New York’s upper crust. Hipster-looking photographs being signed by Jay-Z. All these invitations, promotions, videos, and art exhibitions, paid for by the corporations seeking to make money off of Jay-Z’s album (his record label, his sponsor, Samsung, and many, many others) share one single thing in common. You got it: they all use Bjorn’s font (see above image).
Surprised and somewhat hurt that Jay-Z’s designers would use his font for commercial promotion without even asking him, Bjorn contacted the designer of the video and all the promotional materials, Willo Perron, using internal design channels. He was hoping to resolve the issue amicably, and asked for some small credit somewhere on the Picasso Baby website. Within one day, Bjorn received a short, dismissive response from Willo Perron’s lawyer.
Left with little recourse, Bjorn has decided to go public with this situation, in the hopes that he will receive the recognition he was not afforded by Jay-Z and his design team. The only other option would be to sue for copyright infringement, which Bjorn does not have the resources or desire to undertake. Bjorn has made an illustrative video, viewable here: https://vimeo.com/73284911. Hopefully it will get enough attention that Bjorn will receive the attribution he deserves.
Before you say to yourself, “Oh, it’s just a font that he put up on the website for free, anyone could use it”, you have to understand the nature of a copyright protection. Copyright is designed to protect creativity, and to prevent other people from making money off the creativity of others. Bjorn spent many hours designing his font, and he uses it as a kind of personal signature.
Jay-Z appropriated that font, not just as album art, not just as part of a music video, but as the primary design involved in a massive marketing campaign designed to make millions of dollars for large corporations. Imagine seeing a photo you posted on instagram suddenly emblazoned all over billboards for the new One Direction album. You’d be angry, right?
What is especially ironic here is that all the promotion surrounding the song Picasso Baby and the album Magna Carta Holy Grail, has been all about Jay-Z being a true “artist”. He seems to have a great deal of respect for those great struggling artists who have created iconic visual art. He is branded as a historical great, like a Picasso or Van Gogh. Picasso may have said, “Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal”, but Picasso never got caught.