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Keyboard Cat falls victim to copyright law

July 16, 2009 |  2:10 pm

One of the most popular Internet memes in recent memory is Keyboard Cat, star of a YouTube video of a cat in a blue T-shirt "playing" a keyboard (with an assist from a human, whose hands are hidden by the shirt, manipulating his forelegs). 

Keyboard Cat was an unlikely Internet phenomenon whose potential was harnessed years after the original clip was recorded and the cat, named Fatso, was deceased. A 22-year-old New Yorker, Brad O'Farrell, saw the video earlier this year and asked its creator, Charlie Schmidt of Spokane, Wash., for permission to use it. With Schmidt's OK, O'Farrell set about creating what would become a YouTube smash -- a video of a man in a wheelchair falling down an escalator (we never said it wasn't lowest-common-denominator) followed by the decidedly upbeat stylings of Keyboard Cat.

The video spawned a near-ubiquitous catchphrase for a month or two ("Play him off, Keyboard Cat!") and a host of imitators who followed O'Farrell's formula.  "Keyboard Cat, it seems, could make anything seem funny," our colleague Mark Milian wrote in his history of the Keyboard Cat phenomenon on The Times' Technology blog.  "As more videos of injuries, domestic disputes and, well, more injuries were getting the Keyboard Cat treatment, the juxtaposition appeared to mesh tragedy and comedy with Shakespearean-like elegance."  Keyboard Cat's meteoric rise to fame even led him to be named the first posthumous recipient of VH1's "Best Week Ever" award. 

Keyboard Cat was flying high -- until recently, when copywright law put the kibosh on the musical kitty. 

A video appeared on YouTube featuring a bizarre, campy mashup in which the dramatic 1980s made-for-TV movie "Desperate Lives" (in which a young Helen Hunt falls victim to the lure of drugs) meets onetime pop heroes Hall & Oates. In the video, Keyboard Cat "plays off" Hunt's character after she leaps from a window, then is crudely superimposed into Hall & Oates' band for the video of their hit song "You Make My Dreams." 

Problem is, corporate monolith Warner Music Group owns the rights to "You Make My Dreams" and didn't appreciate its inclusion in the clip. As a result, the sound was muted on the video and a message tacked on which reads, "This video contains an audio track that has not been authorized by WMG. The audio has been disabled." A host of scorching comments from angry YouTube viewers now accompany the clip, along with suggestions of alternate websites on which to view it with the audio intact.

"Never mind that the video could contribute to Hall & Oates' relevance in the time of YouTube, potentially stoking the band’s slow-burning revival among today’s pseudo-ironic music fans," writes Wired.com. The twist, Wired adds, is that media stories about the alteration of the video ("YouTube neuters Keyboard Cat," reads P2PNet's headline) have simply drawn more attention to the clip, "resulting in more views for the offending video than would have resulted if they’d simply ignored it."

Elsewhere on the Interwebs, CNET writer Caroline McCarthy calls the removal of the video's sound "a quintessential example of the music industry missing the point" before sheepishly admitting that she herself purchased the original Hall & Oates track on iTunes "after the Keyboard Cat video got it stuck in my head."  (Another CNET writer, Greg Sandoval, writes that the culprit behind the removal of audio from Warner-copyrighted tracks may in fact be YouTube itself -- the result of a kind of nose-thumbing response to Warner's request for more money during a contract negotiation with YouTube late last year.)

All we can say is, we're sure glad Warner doesn't own Whack-A-Kitty.

-- Lindsay Barnett

Video: The original "Keyboard Cat" clip. Credit: chuckieart via YouTube

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