On September 13, Montreal, Canada-based filmmaker and animator Jonathan Ng received an email from a friend, asking, “Did you authorize this?”
What followed was a link to a Youtube video for the song “Take Me,” by DJ and EDM artist Will Sparks. The video consisted almost entirely of Ng’s animated short, Requiem for Romance (watch below), which the popular Australian musician had set to his own music.
The musician’s creative team lifted Ng’s film – a phone call break-up inventively re-imagined as a couple sparring across a classical Chinese landscape – and with some editing, reconfigured the film to fit Sparks’ song. Ng tells Cartoon Brew that no one from the label contacted him prior to posting the video, nor was any permission received.
In a now-deleted tweet, a Twitter user named Three Heads claimed he designed the video with both Sparks and the Hilversum, Netherlands-based record label Spinnin’ Records:
Ng, who spent two years producing Requiem, initially felt confused by the wholesale theft of a film that he spent so long making, including raising financing; hiring and supervising assistant animators, compositors, and musicians; directing the voice actors; and of course animating the film. His film enjoyed a healthy festival run, screening at Anima Mundi, Stuttgart, and Melbourne In’t Film Festival among others, in addition to being shortlisted for an Oscar in 2013. Online it has earned over 350,000 views to date on Vimeo.
The filmmaker conferred with friends, many of whom were themselves independent artists, to gather their thoughts on the situation. His friends reacted strongly, some even going onto Twitter to complain about the situation, including Patrick Doyon, the Oscar-nominated director of the NFB short Sunday:
The next day, September 14, Ng was contacted by Matthew Harrison of Spinnin’ Records, the label behind the video. Harrison offered a mea culpa, though he seemed to believe the error was in not crediting Ng, and instead crediting the VJ Three Heads who had been hired to produce and edit the video. In an attempt to make amends, Harrison offered Ng a percentage of ad revenue for the video, which had surpassed a million views on Youtube.
Ng rejected the revenue sharing offer. For Ng, Sparks’ music and his film were not a creative fit. His film already had a score, by Vid Cousins, based around a theme by Kid Koala. That commissioned music was the audio that Ng felt should accompany his film.
Ng also filed a takedown notice with Youtube, and by September 19, the Google-owned video hosting site removed Sparks’ video from its site.
Despite being caught, Sparks and his record label haven’t backed down from their unauthorized use of Ng’s artwork. The label still uses Requiem for Romance artwork on its website, and Sparks has kept the video on his Facebook page.
The incident is further evidence of an ongoing problem that continues to worsen over time for independent filmmakers: policing the unauthorized use of their work on the internet. As Ng tells Cartoon Brew, many websites offer ways for creators to flag unauthorized use of their work, but only the copyright owner can file a claim. No one can do it on the artist’s behalf. This creates a burden on indie artists, who already spend an inordinate amount of their time dealing with business matters rather than focusing on creative work.
Ng noted that the irony is that, frequently, artists are only too happy to have their work seen by larger audiences. All they need is someone to ask permission and offer a deal. For example, Ng himself had previously licensed a film to a British music group. As he explained, the band asked permission, Ng suggested licensing the film, and a deal was made.
Unfortunately, too often, other artists, especially musicians looking for visuals to accompany their music, simply steal the work of independent filmmakers, knowing that indie artists usually lack the resources to defend their work from misappropriation.
The strategy hasn’t worked out so far for Sparks. Ng is currently speaking with an entertainment attorney about the matter and exploring his legal options. He will consider any additional response he receives from Sparks and his representatives before deciding what further action to take.
Cartoon Brew made multiple requests for comment to Spinnin’ Records, but did not receive a response from the label.
UPDATE: A Spinnin’ Records spokesperson, who declined to be identified, sent Cartoon Brew the following statement:
We contacted Jonathan asking multiple times after seeing remarks when the video originally went live and after about licensing and even splitting ad revenue with Jonathan. We are still open to this idea, as at this point our YouTube page has resulted in a loss in sales, marketing funds, and the ability to promote artist such as Will Sparks. We have also reached out to Jonathan to publish a redo or republish this version of “Take Me” on our page with the correct documentation including his credentials, as well as everyone else who worked on the project. At this point we have still yet to hear back from him. At this point we have begun reaching out to other animators, as well as Jonathan to hire them to make a new video and give credit where credit is due.
As far as your current article goes I would ask kindly to remove it or repost it on your page as it makes Will Sparks look bad when he is not involved in the process at all. This burden falls on our team at Spinnin’ for letting the ball drop and not contact Jonathan sooner before the video went live. We are currently backing down using Jonathan’s art, video and other medias from our socials and our website and are currently awaiting a new animator to tackle the process of creating new art.
We ask you to be patient with us as we are still waiting for answers on our side as well.