The symbolism couldn't be more perfect. A DJ superimposes lyrics from Jay-Z's Black Album over spliced bits and pieces of the music from the Beatles' White Album. The result, aptly titled the Grey Album, blew critics away - Rolling Stone hailed it "an ingenious hip-hop record that sounds oddly ahead of its time." The DJ pressed about 3,000 copies of the album and has said he gave most of them away.
There's just one problem: The DJ didn't have permission to use any of the music.
Enter EMI Group, corporate guardian of the Beatles' recordings, which issued a cease-and-desist order to the DJ, whose real name is Brian Burton, in early February. He halted distribution of the Grey Album immediately.
While EMI says the issue is black and white, tens of thousands of consumers seem to think otherwise. An entire genre of music - the "mash-up" - uses other artists' work to make new sounds, and this genre is finding a large and enthusiastic audience. While no one disputes that Mr. Burton broke copyright law, many musicians and consumers are questioning whether that law is hindering artistic freedom.
"The album received critical acclaim," argues Holmes Wilson, cofounder of Downhill Battle, a music activist project. "It's advancing Jay-Z's legacy. And no one is going to buy this instead of the White Album. They aren't protecting the Beatles' rights - they're trying to suppress this work of art."
Shortly after hearing of EMI's cease-and-desist order, Downhill Battle announced that Feb. 24 would be "Grey Tuesday." As a form of protest, people could color their websites gray or host the album on their site to be downloaded freely by visitors. To his surprise, Holmes's clarion call for protest drew nearly 200 websites by Tuesday morning. As EMI issued cease-and-desist letters to the sites, even more signed on. Unable to handle large volumes of visitors, many of the sites hosting the album asked those with access to a file-sharing service to download it there instead.