Friday, May 27, 2005

Back to the Copyright Thing

Though, after this, Prorata will probably not come back here, I do want to think through copyright a little more thoroughly. And, as much as I loathe linking to LiveJournal, I think Mediadrone has a salient David Bowie quote (and listen, folks, I'm not vouching for the ethics of Mediadrone. He's the kind of guy who thinks it's funny to leave drawings of naked cartoon characters in people's bathrooms or take frames from movies and make weird art out of them, so it's entirely possible that he said this and is passing it off as Bowie. What can you do? We live in a world where everyone plays pretend.) and I want to use it.
The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within ten years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it's not going to happen. I'm fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in ten years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing. Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity. [. . .] So it's like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You'd better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that's really the only unique situation that's going to be left. It's terribly exciting. But on the other hand, it doesn't matter if you think it's exciting or not; it's what's going to happen... -David Bowie, June 2002
So, copyright applies to a lot of stuff, but the only two things I really give a shit about copyright applying to are books and music. And both are at a kind of crisis point because technology now makes making copies and manipulating those copies very easy. But how both got to this point and what the implications are and how I feel about them are different, maybe. With music, it's easy to see how David Bowie could be right. It's funny, we were talking about this at lunch, from another angle about A.P. Carter copyrighting all these songs that were older than him, and widely sung, in his own name. And it's this heritage that the music industry has never successfully overcome. From the moment commercial recordings of vernacular music started, people have been copyrighting and getting rich off of songs that previously seemed to belong to everyone. We've been over this before, but it's why you have the same melodies and verses popping up in different blues songs--because Robert Johnson could learn a song from Charley Patton and no one thought that Johnson was stealing from Patton. I'm not even sure we could safely say that anyone thought that Johnson was singing Patton's song. At best, we might surmise that they thought that Johnson was singing a song he learned from Patton and if he changed the words a little, who cared? This is less than 100 years ago. But once there was money to be made, not just from your own performance of a song, but from other people performing your song, nailing down just whose song it was became important. And people claimed copyright on whatever they could, whether or not they'd actually written it. This problem has not gone away. Led Zeppelin copyrighted songs they knew they learned from old blues records. But another problem, hand in hand with that one, exists: everyone has this sense that music, after a certain, short time, belongs to everyone. Even P. Diddy got nailed, and hard, because he thought "I'll Fly Away" was one of those songs that just belonged to all of us, when it was still under copyright protection. But who can blame him? If you love a song and you sing it and feel it in your soul, it does feel like it becomes yours, at least partially, in some way. So, I think what Bowie is getting at is that music, the way people experience and perform music, just doesn't seem to work with copyright. For all our existence we've been singing songs and learning those songs by singing them and passing them on to others by teaching them. And through that process, we change the song as much as it changes us. And, as musicologists would tell us, the changes in the song tell us a great deal about who we are as well. Nailing down and copyrighting some official version of a song runs counter to how we've always experienced music. And it's no surprise that the copyright protections extended to music are the first ones to be ignored wholesale by audiences and performers (when they can get away with it). I know this pisses a lot of musicians off, especially because the biggest copyright infringements in the music industry right now are not people artistically using materials, but just folks swapping songs on computers, but the hard truth is that no one promised you a job doing what you love, so, if you go broke, go work at Casey's. They're always hiring. I keep thinking of Gillian Welch's song "Everything is Free," which is basically a complaint about people not paying for music, which is on a great album that contains a song sung to the tune of "John Henry," because even Gillian Welch believes, apparently, that there comes a point when a song belongs to everyone. So, my point is that I suspect Bowie might be right, but not because there's some big revolution--in the sense of a new order overturning the old--but because there's always just the revolution of the seasons and our tendency to want to be able to do what we've always done. So, how can I argue for the acceptance of the fact that keeping music copyrighted for 120 years is bullshit and will not stand and also argue that Google and those university libraries have totally overstepped their bounds? I have two reasons. One, I do think things stay protected by copyright far too long and that we ought to go back to a standard of "the lifetime of the author." I think individuals ought to benefit from their hard work, but we're a community and the community also has a right to benefit from your hard work, even in ways you don't like. So, if university libraries and Google want to scan in and post every book in the public domain, more power to them. I think that'd be awesome and would really give people a deep sense of the benefits to the whole community of having things enter the public domain. But as much as we are a nation of individuals and communities, we are a nation of large corporations. These corporations don't have individuals' or communities' best interests at heart; they have other forces motivating them. So, it often behooves individuals to align themselves to certain corporations--publishers, record companies, etc.--in order to have help with and be protected from other corporations. Even though their relationships with publishers or record companies might fairly be called exploitative, these authors and performers at least have contracts with these companies and thus have a negotiated relationship of rules. So, it seems to me that what's happening in the recording industry is a wide-spread rebellion by individual audience members, who are all using product in a way that more fits their needs. But what's happening in this instance with Google is that a corporation has decided the to circumvent the wishes of the author. Hmm. Which I guess brings me to the other major difference. Being the author of a book means something very different culturally than being a music performer, because books have existed for so much longer than recorded music. People intrinsically get how a book belongs to an author, whereas, obviously they don't exactly get who a song belongs to. I mean, think about it: you could sing the chorus of "Yankee Doodle" in the middle of your song and no one would think anything strange of it, but if you took the whole middle section of Middlemarch and reproduced it in the middle of your book, even if it fit, I think there'd be a lot of discussion about whether that was "right" even if it's perfectly legal. I think that, at heart, I think individuals' assaults on copyright is okay, but that corporations' assaults on it are not. I'm not sure that's a tenable position.


Blogger Steve Pick said...

Man, Aunt B, you do some powerful thinking on this subject. I go around and around myself.

First, I believe in the principles of fair use in regard to copyright. I believe, for example, that the incredibly fertile creative period of hip hop in the late 80s was built in large part on the backs of thousands of samples of other people's music. That was pretty much exactly what you were talking about in your reference to Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. Only, the courts disagreed, and music suffered.

As for file swapping, well, I know for a fact that Vintage Vinyl sold more music in the last year of Napster's reign than it ever did before or since. Before the record companies started calling their customers thieves, people used file sharing as a way to find out about music, and thus increase their desire to own more of it. Now, of course, it's been devalued and identified as something owned by stupid giant corporations.

So, I try to figure out the parallels with books. Nobody is going to read whole books on the computer. Heck, sometimes I stop reading blog posts if they're too long. And, I love to read, but I love best to read when I'm more comfortable than sitting at my desk. It's a different experience.

However, I do check out sample chapters of books, and I do read reviews online all the time. And, I do use the internet for research, and I would use it even more if every damn book in the universe was there for me to pull from. I do the same thing with music. Rather than go upstairs to pull my Rolling Stones CDs to find out which album had "Under My Thumb" on it, I'll go to and look it up. I own lots of books, but they're not in any convenient storage system.

I don't know if the book industry will be hurt by this google plan as much as you think it might. It's like a giant lending library, and libraries have existed alongside an increase in sales of books for years.

I agree with you about the problems with corporations extending copyright ownership far past the time it used to be. I think it's even worse in the world of trademark protection. For all of this, we owe Walt Disney. Him and that silly mouse.

5/28/2005 03:25:00 PM  

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