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YouTube conundrum for vintage acts

The video site is proving a thorn in the side of older, well-known musical artists, from Prince to the Village People.

The music industry typically sings YouTube's praises.

Google's video-sharing site has signed strategic partnerships with all four of the major record labels and has emerged as a launching pad for up-and-coming artists, making it this generation's answer to American Bandstand.

Then why are pop icon Prince and 1970s disco group the Village People preparing to file lawsuits against the company?

Prince and Can't Stop Productions, the company that owns the rights to the Village People's music, have hired the same British firm, Web Sheriff, to file lawsuits on their behalf. In addition to YouTube, Prince is preparing legal action against eBay and The Pirate Bay. He is apparently angry that his copyright is being violated. The Village People are fuming over hundreds of videos posted to YouTube that combine their music with historical footage of Adolph Hitler and other Nazis.

The question that the controversy raises is whether YouTube provides any benefit to legacy artists like Prince and the Village People. Acts that have been around for a while may not need YouTube's help to promote their records. Meanwhile, they might see their songs being used without their permission or in ways that they find offensive and start thinking of YouTube as a threat.

"If there is any promotional benefit to bands like the Village People from mashups its only negligible," said Jay Rosenthal, co-legal counsel to the Recording Artists' Coalition, a group that advocates for the rights of music artists. "The fans of this group are unlikely to go online often. But what could hurt the artist is when someone sees this video and thinks that the Village People have somehow endorsed Hitler or the Nazis. To some people I think it may not be clear that they haven't."

Rosenthal also predicts the problem will get worse as more people combine professionally crafted music with home videos.

"Artists are going to look for a way to file suit for disparagement," Rosenthal predicted. "It's going to get worse as artists begin to see their music manipulated in ways they don't want to be associated with."

The record companies have shown that they see YouTube as a powerful way to boost interest in their music. The second most-viewed clip of all time on YouTube is "Girlfriend," a music video from singer Avril Lavigne that's been seen more than 53 million times. No. 3 on the all-time list is another rock video, "Famous Last Words" by the band My Chemical Romance, with 37 million views.

Mashups are also hugely popular on YouTube. They typically feature a person lip syncing to a popular song. Other YouTube video creators shoot videos with snippets of songs played in the background. EMI, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group have all signed licensing deals with YouTube, acquired by Google last October for $1.65 billion, that allows users on the site to either access video, music or both.

And while Prince and the Village People are slamming YouTube, the company announced just this week that rap artists 50 Cent, Common and Polow da Don are helping YouTube judge a rap competition that YouTube is sponsoring.

"We have great partnerships with major music labels all over world that understand the benefit of using YouTube as another way to communicate with their fans," said Zahavah Levine, YouTube's chief counsel in a e-mail on Thursday.

It's about control
But what the Village People want to say to their fans is that they don't support Nazis. They also argue that YouTube is allowing people to suggest that they do.

A review of YouTube turned up several clips featuring archival footage of Hitler combined with the Village People songs, such as "Macho Man" and "Go West." It's obvious that the videos' makers are trying to be funny. The clips are edited in a way to make Hitler appear as if he's dancing and singing the songs.

But the Village People aren't laughing, said John Giacobbi, Web Sheriff's president, in an interview on Friday. He said that one has to consider that the two men who wrote the Village People's 1978 hit song "YMCA" are both Jewish.

To the group, it's about control and the right to decide how the material is used, Giacobbi said.

In addition, some top artists include in their contracts that their music can't be used in commercials or specify ideas or products with which they don't wish to associate, according to Brian Caplan, an attorney who represents artists such as Cheap Trick and The Allman Brothers Band.

"Depending on the bargaining leverage of the act, they can put clauses in there that restrict what their music gets used for," Caplan said. "A multi-platinum artist can say 'You can't license the use of my recordings for commercials.'"

Prince and the Village People claim that they have chosen a legal route only after failing to stop the illegal use of material with take-down notices. Giacobbi said that Web Sheriff has sent hundreds of notices to YouTube asking for the removal of clips that violate the rights of the artists. But within days, dozens of new copies reappear. He said that it's obvious that the company filters porn and prevents that from going up. He thinks the company should do that for copyright content as well.

YouTube has said it is close to launching a filtering system that would help prevent copyright content from appearing on the site.