Houston: did they ‘copy’?

Last week, we posted about the apparent similarities between Grey London’s Printer Orchestra spot for Brother and James Houston’s Big Ideas (don’t get any) graduation film from 2008. The issues raised in the piece, and subsequently on Twitter, touch on familiar rows about copyright and plagiarism. Here, we explore both sides of the story in extensive detail

Last week, we posted about the apparent similarities between Grey London’s Printer Orchestra spot for Brother and James Houston’s Big Ideas (don’t get any) graduation film from 2008. The issues raised in the piece, and subsequently on Twitter, touch on familiar rows about copyright and plagiarism. Here, we explore both sides of the story in detail


Brother, Printer Orchestra ad, 2012


In our post, Grey stated they they were aware of Houston’s film (shown below) but that it was just one of many other references discussed in the making of the ad (shown above). Since then, and following accusations of ‘ripping-off’ from commenters on YouTube and concerns raised by Houston, Brother’s European marketing and communications manager Antony Peart issued a statement saying that Brother was “concerned to read some of the views expressed here” and that “they have asked [Grey] to investigate the points being raised and to reassure us about the creative process behind it.”

“Brother asked us to investigate the making of the campaign, to reassure them that we acted properly and ethically throughout the process,” say Grey. “We have done so, thoroughly. Brother are satisfied that no wrongdoing took place and [as far as they are concerned] the matter is now closed.”


James Houston, Big Ideas (don’t get any), 2008

In an effort to bring clarity to all this, CR has spoken to all parties concerned: James Houston, Grey London, the production company who originally contacted Houston regarding working on the ad, B-Reel, and Partizan, the production company who made the final ad.

“When we were asked to launch Brother’s new range of printers, we wanted to show the old world of printing being left behind. The choice to use old machines was a strategic one to demonstrate how times (ie technology) have moved on,” Grey say. “When thinking about how to bring this idea to life, we were inspired by a number of artists who have deconstructed machinery to make music from them. Our first inspiration was Printer Music from 2002 (shown below) featuring a Brother printer making music. We briefed B-Reel (and two other production companies including Partizan who ultimately won the pitch) on May 28, 2012. We sent them the brief (shown below) to create an orchestra of old machines as a homage to the ‘old world of printing’ thus showcasing Brother’s new technology. As inspiration, we also sent the Printer Music link to all the production companies. The only reference we initially sent to the production companies was Printer Music.”


Printer Music, 2002

Grey London’s brief for the Brother ad

B-Reel executive producer Philippa Allen says that “When we first got the brief through [from Grey] we had a script that didn’t mention James or his film. It just mentioned the idea.” She confirms that Grey sent them the Printer Music link at that stage. “Then, as extra stimulus material, they sent other links they’d found – one of them was James Houston’s work. James is right that his film was looked at early on in the pitch process,” she continues, “but it wasn’t like ‘this is the only thing we’ve seen and this is what we want to do’ – that wasn’t the case.”

We asked Grey if Houston’s film was referenced at any stage and if so in what terms. Grey told us that they subsequently referenced “a number of other films and artists that have shown office equipment making music. These included [The User] (Symphony #1 for dot matrix printers, 1998); Younnat (Dot Matrix Printer Etude, 1998); the works of bd594; Tristram Cary, ‘the father of electronic music’, whose most revered work came in the 1960s-70s; and James’s ‘Big Ideas’ film.” Grey confirmed Allen’s account that Houston’s film was only ever referenced and used legitimately, as inspiration.


[The User] :: The Symphony #1 for dot matrix printers – 1998 from Undefine on Vimeo.


Above, Younnat (Dot Matrix Printer Etude, 1998)


bd594’s version of Funky Town by Lipps Inc

In an email to CR, Houston says that B-Reel first contacted him on May 29. He was under the impression that B-Reel had asked him to be involved in a “recreation” of his Big Ideas (don’t get any) film for Brother. However, Allen now clarifies that “We were never talking about ‘recreating’ James’s video. It was one of a number of references we looked at, and not the first. We wanted to talk to him because of his experience, but Grey did not ask us to recreate his Radiohead film. Our feeling, when we saw the different references and we saw James’ film, was to say to Grey, ‘we’d like to talk to this guy because he’s already done something like this and we’d quite like to tap into his knowledge’ so we started talking to him. At this point it wasn’t even a formal pitch, it was just scoping out an idea,” she says.

According to Houston, he then sent B-Reel a “rough schedule, I quoted them an artist’s fee, my daily rate and the price of the components needed. This sum would give them the right to use my concept and treatment. I ordered microprocessor boards, enlisted the help of another programmer, warmed my trusty soldering iron and started to source donor machines.”

Allen confirms that Houston sent B-Reel an email with this information, “however we never guaranteed a fee for his involvement,” she maintains. “He didn’t write a treatment, a B-Reel director wrote the treatment that was our pitch to Grey. We did have to make it clear to James that he wasn’t going to direct the film if we won the pitch – we were very clear that we’d have to bring in a commercials director and he understood that.”

“This wasn’t a new concept and treatment I presented them. I was referring to the concept and treatment of my Big Ideas video,” Houston claims. However, Allen contends that Houston was involved because of his expertise as a filmmaker, not in order to use or copy his concepts or any treatment written by him.

Houston says: “I told Rob Leonard [a freelance producer B-Reel hired to work on the job] I had to buy components. The deadline was very tight and some of the parts were coming from abroad, so they absolutely had to be ordered at that stage.” However, according to Allen, “During the pitch process James made a test film as we were worried about the track not working. We weren’t aware at the time that he had spent his own money on buying machines, we assumed he had relevant machines/parts in his studio.”

Houston has expressed concerns that some of his work and suggestions made in the initial stages of developing the idea may have been made use of in the final ad. However, Allen says, “James never sent Grey anything directly, he was communicating his thoughts and ideas with B-Reel only and obviously we were asking what James would need to make it so we could put a budget together. What has to be clear is that he didn’t give Grey or Brother a ‘this is how you do it’ document on how to make the ad. He fed information to B-Reel, some of which we included in our pitch to try and win the job.”

Grey add: “Throughout the pitch process, we had no direct contact with James whatsoever. James only dealt with B-Reel. We’ve never received any specific information from James, or through B-Reel (such as ‘a shopping list of parts’ and a ‘breakdown of costs’), neither did we request it. We never shared the information we did receive with anyone else. All elements of the final film were either in the original brief or conceived independently by Partizan.”

As regards credit, Houston says “I sent the following email to B-Reel with a spreadsheet of detailed cost breakdown when we were negotiating terms: “It would be great if I could at least get a co-director credit on this project, and a sensible fee to reflect that this ad is a direct remake of my film. The copyright on Big Ideas is held by me and The Glasgow School of Art … It would be useful for us both if I was officially seen as having some part to play in the creative output of this. It’d be great for when we win all the D&ADs too.”

However, Allen comments: “We were getting costs from James for our budget, but at this stage we were not negotiating. Again, the ad wasn’t a direct remake, and we wouldn’t have said this to James. The issue of copyright was never discussed as it’s not possible to have copyright over making music from old machines. We told James he would not get a director or co-director credit. We said we would give him an ‘artist’ credit should we be awarded the job and we would of course have then negotiated an appropriate fee for his time and involvement in the production.”

Houston says that “I was keen to further my career as a director on this project, I’m a filmmaker first and foremost. B-Reel insisted on using one of their own directors but as way of compensation they offered to fund an exhibition in London to coincide with the Brother launch. This solo exhibition would feature the entire orchestra playing live so visitors could see that it wasn’t all done using CGI. There would also be a documentary showcasing my work and me as an artist. I was to be allowed to keep all the equipment after the project was completed and use it in further personal work. I was really happy.”

Allen responds that “We were talking about the possibility of doing a live event but not as compensation to James. It was not a solo exhibition, it was a creative suggestion to do a live version of the ad. Whether or not it was a live event or in a studio was not James’ decision. It was something we were exploring as a production company. We did not discuss a documentary at all, we talked about doing a ‘making of’, where James along with the director and crew would have been featured, but it was not a documentary about him. We said James could keep the machines (if we had sourced them, not Grey and only if that had been agreed by Grey).”

B-Reel lost out on the pitch to Partizan and it was director Chris Cairns who made the final film. Allen says that when she heard they had lost, she emailed Grey to suggest that they talk to Houston if they didn’t intend to involve him as she was aware that he felt “sensitive” about the project. Houston says that “After I found out that B-Reel hadn’t won the pitch, I called Grey and was flatly told that I’d no longer be involved. I have received no money for the work done, or for the rights to my concept and approach.”

Grey confirmed that Allen suggested to them that they get in touch with Houston when she found out B-Reel hadn’t won the pitch. They also say they had emailed Houston on June 19 during the pitch process but claim they heard nothing back until after the pitch process had been completed. Houston explained to us that he’d ignored the email from Grey thinking they were a competing production company also pitching for the job. However, it was Houston who called Grey the day after B-Reel found out they hadn’t won the pitch. “On this call, we made it clear we were not remaking or copying his 2008 film,” say Grey. “Furthermore, despite his demands for payment via Twitter since the film went live on November 5, the issue of compensation was never raised by James during this call.” Grey’s position, CR believes, is that they never employed or instructed Houston to do any work for them.

In summary: Houston is concerned about the apparent similarities between his film and the final ad. However according to Partizan, Grey and B-Reel, at no point were the production companies pitching on making the ad asked to ‘remake’ or copy Houston’s film and nor did they do so. “Our film was not a direct remake of James’s, was never intended to be and was not briefed to production companies as such,” Grey say. The first reference sent to production companies as inspiration in relation to the Brother ad, Grey and B-Reel say, was of a film from 2002 (Houston’s film was made in 2008). According to B-Reel and Grey, Houston was never in contact with the agency regarding how to make the ad and none of his suggestions were passed on to Partizan, the production company that won the pitch and went on to make the ad, or Chris Cairns personally. A post on Partizan’s site states that “the film is inspired by other kindred tinkerers and electronic adventurers, like Tristram Cary, James Houston and BD594”.

For their part, Partizan contend that their film is manifestly different to Houston’s: “Everyone likes to think that their ideas are entirely original. Unfortunately the idea of machines making music both literally and metaphorically goes back a good 40 years. The aim of our film was to develop that idea and execute it on a much grander scale than had been done previously by creating an orchestra, which is what we achieved. James Houston’s film for Radiohead was one of the many inspirations for the film. But it wasn’t the first. The first we were given was “Printer Music” from 2002 featuring a Brother printer making music. [The User] (Symphony #1 for dot matrix printers, 1998); Younnat (Dot Matrix Printer Etude, 1998); the works of bd594; Tristram Cary and James Houston followed. The goal of the director is always to create something fresh and for a director such as Chris Cairns creating a film demonstrably different to the reference is always of paramount importance.”

In response, Houston says: “I encourage your readers to look at the other works listed as reference. Of them all, only James Cochrane’s and mine feature more than one type of ‘instrument’. James Cochrane (BD594) is a technology enthusiast from Canada. He has publicly acknowledged that he directly lifted my idea in his excellent YouTube videos. He didn’t sell my concept to anyone and I believe his heart is in the right place. Grey’s advertisement covered an existing well known music track, just like Big Ideas. They used hardware to defamiliarise a familiar song. All of the other references are ‘original compositions’. I’d contest that my work is much closer in concept and execution than anything else presented.

“People have been making printer music for years,” he continues. “I believe I’m the first filmmaker to separate the component parts of an existing well known music track and cover it with multiple types of instruments (printers and scanners and hard drives etc.). All of the other references cited, aside from BD594’s, used only one instrument. One would wonder why Grey decided to use unrelated components like hard drives, scanners and floppy drives on an advertisement about printers.

“I’d also like to draw attention to the way in which both films [Houston’s and the Brother ad] were shot, directed and edited,” Houston says. “Grey’s video doesn’t look or feel like anything else on their list. It looks and feels like Big Ideas and Polybius, films I created before their advert launched. Perhaps Partizan would like to explain how they see Cairns’ film as ‘demonstrably different’ from mine, aside from a larger budget and a company logo whacked on. Increasing the scale of an existing idea with a huge budget doesn’t change that core idea,” Houston claims.

Above, still from Houston’s recent Polybius film which screened on Channel 4. Watch it here.

Commenters on YouTube and Twitter have leaped to condemn Grey and rally to Houston’s support offering their opinions about the merits of his case and urging him to take action. However, Allen says “We go through this all the time – you see something that was in your pitch and can kind of feel like ‘oh great they’ve taken our ideas from the pitch and someone else has made them’ but then we never know if another director has had exactly the same idea/s – although in this case our treatment was different to Chris’s film. The thing is, we’re used to it, the pitching process, we’ve done it for years and sometimes you don’t win and in some cases you can feel that the ad is exactly as you pitched it, but that’s the business we work in and we – production companies – accept that because that’s how it is. It’s such a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism and the truth is that James doesn’t have a copyright over making music out of machines. It would be different if Grey had come to us and shown us James’ film and said ‘this is what we want but on a bigger scale’, but that wasn’t how the conversation unfolded.”

Houston however says that “If anyone tries to discredit me with ‘not understanding the pitching process’, I’d claim they don’t understand the ‘creative’ process. I’ve been working on commercial jobs since 2008, I understand the pitching process.”

“I feel for James because he’s a graduate and trying to build his career,” Allen says. “As a production company we thought that it would be great to work with him on it because it made sense on a practical level because he had the technical know-how. The situation that’s unfolded since the viral aired is unfortunate for all parties. Ultimately we tried to pitch this project, like every other, using best practice.”

While Houston says that he feels “quite justified to be upset”, Allen contends “Unfortunately, on Twitter misunderstandings can spread like wildfire, and we end up here.”


Further Reading
CR’s Eliza Williams explored the issues pertinent to this debate in her feature entitled The YouTube Dilemma which we published in 2009.



CR would like to ask commenters to restrict themselves to general obervations on this. Comments may be deleted


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