ABBA says ‘Nej!’ to Wake SPCA’s viral adoption video

bcain@newsobserver.comFebruary 3, 2013 

(THIS PHOTO CAN'T RUN OVER 2 COLUMNS, IT IS A SCREEN GRAB AND IS POOR QUALITY) A screen grab taken from YouTube of a video that the SPCA of Wake County created set to the song "Take a Chance on Me" by the Swedish band ABBA. The video can still be seen, but the audio has been removed by the request of the band.


  • Content ID and YouTube YouTube uses something called Content ID System, a digital fingerprinting system, to identify copyrighted song use on its site. If someone uploads a video with a song in it, the digital fingerprint of that song matches up to YouTube’s song database, and the copyright holder is notified. Jennifer Jenkins of Duke University School of Law said the copyright holder has three options: monetize the video, meaning the video stays up and the copyright holder gets paid each time it’s viewed; block the video; or track demographic data about the people watching the video. The YouTube page also includes a direct link for the viewer to buy a copy of the song from iTunes.

The Swedish pop band ABBA just isn’t willing to take a chance on the SPCA of Wake County.

A conflict that originated more than a year ago when the nonprofit animal shelter posted a YouTube video using an ABBA song, has reignited as the video has gone viral on the Internet in the past month.

Despite the best efforts of the Swedes to squash the video, the SPCA’s tribute to the joy of pet adoption will not die.

It all began when the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Wake County made the video in late 2011, featuring 60 staff members and volunteers doing a one-take lip-sync to ABBA’s 1978 song “Take a Chance on Me.” They danced through the Raleigh shelter holding kittens, puppies and a bunny.

The brainchild of SPCA marketing director Darci VanderSlik, the video originally was created for viewing at the group’s annual black-tie fundraiser. After the gala, it was put on YouTube so that all of the volunteers featured in the video could view it.

Within six days of its posting, the video had gotten more than 65,000 views online and inspired hundreds of grateful comments and emails. It also triggered a polite, but stern, letter from the music company representing the ABBA band members who wrote the song.

Mondy Lamb, SPCA development director, said no amount of negotiating or begging with a Universal Music Group representative out of Stockholm could change the minds of the Swedes, who considered the video too commercial. The record company had it blocked on YouTube.

Lamb then asked a rights broker in California (an avowed pet lover who did the work for no charge) to make an offer to UMG to purchase a license to use the song. The ABBA writers still responded with the Swedish version of “No!” – “Nej!”

Viral, again

By the time UMG yanked the video, it had already been downloaded by who-knows-how-many viewers. So when the original disappeared, other lower-quality copies began showing up. The SPCA also posted a muted version of the video online, with instructions on how to legally acquire ABBA music to accompany it. It was a cumbersome work-around, but Lamb felt it was better than nothing.

For reasons no one at the SPCA can explain, the video suddenly found new life last month. Various YouTube bootlegs were getting a few thousand hits here and there, but a version on Vimeo had 460,000 hits before being taken down Jan. 30 at the request of the SPCA. That video was posted by “Chester McPurrs” in April 2012, but nearly all of those 460,000 views came in the last two weeks of January.

UMG representatives did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

High-quality video

Lamb said UMG indicated to the SPCA’s rights broker that the video looked “too good.” VanderSlik said that’s because Matthew Hightower, an executive producer at POV Productions in Raleigh, had recently adopted a dog from the SPCA of Wake County and wanted to do something nice for the shelter in return.

POV shot the video for free. In fact, the entire SPCA budget for the video was $32 spent on confetti streamers.

What’s in it for ABBA?

Even if the video looks too professional, SPCA staffers wonder why the offer to pay for a license to use the music would be rejected, especially when so many other user-created YouTube videos use popular songs to positive effect.

Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke University School of Law, said Internet models are “still evolving” and that YouTube videos using an artist’s music – such as when the U.S. Olympic swim team used Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” – can prove profitable.

Jenkins noted that last year, PSY’s “Gangnam Style” song made more than $8 million from the 1.2 billion times it and its numerous parodies were viewed on YouTube.

“Extremely popular videos like ‘Call Me Maybe’ and ‘Gangnam Style’ have found that it’s actually in the copyright holder’s economic interest not to try to stop viral distribution of their videos, because it’s free advertising,” Jenkins said. “It actually drives sales, and if they monetize on YouTube, they also get a small amount of money every time someone watches the video.”

YouTube’s Content ID System can help artists discover when copyrighted material is on the site and can even help direct viewers to buy it online, Jenkins said.

What now?

Though the SPCA video fulfilled its initial purpose to entertain fundraisers and volunteers, Lamb said, the stakes changed for staffers once they began hearing from those around the world who watched it and drew inspiration from it.

“The emails from Bulgaria say the same things as the emails from Chile,” she said. “People say it made them feel connected to others.”

ABBA’s “Take a Chance on Me” has been covered dozens of times by various artists from all over the world (including The Chipmunks). It was played at political rallies in 2008 by presidential candidate John McCain, who is a big ABBA fan.

But using the 25-year-old song for adopting out kittens and puppies may not be in the cards – at least not legally.

“We’re not promoting the bootlegged copies,” VanderSlik said. “But the Internet will do what the Internet does.”

There’s already another bootleg on Vimeo, and a quick search on YouTube returned a half-dozen other versions.

Meanwhile, shelter staff members are determined that the ABBA battle will not be their Waterloo.

“We still want to work something out with the record company,” Lamb said. “I hold out hope that things will change.”

Cain: 919-829-4579

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