Jay-Z and Alan Lomax

A great illustration of current copyright law shortcomings is explained by Ethan Hein on his excellent blog about music and related topics. It explains how someone who has absolutely zero contribution to a copyrightable work can still have their name on it, not via striking a deal, but by inheritance of copyrights. It’s a great read – including links to relevant youtube clips and a great infograph – just long enough to tell the story without becoming boring!

 Ethan has numerous other blog entires which touch on quite a few topics of interest to music makers in general, and also specifically to remixers. For example his discussion about “samples and community” is a great perspective on what makes remixing such a seductive while simultaneously controversial part of music.

This is one of the very finest music related blogs I’ve bumped into. So it’s now added to the “other blogs i like” section on the right.

The Need for Public Domain

CBC Spark features an excellent episode featuring host Nora Young interviewing James Boyle, law professor at Duke University. As one of the original board members (serving from 2002 to 2009, in the final year as chair), of the Creative Commons he is one of the leading thinkers on copyright reform.

The interview starts around the 7:50 mark right after the excellent winning remix of teru (at about the 6:00 minute mark) of the little contest I mentioned a couple of blog posts ago. Congratulations teru – well deserved recognition for your remixing prowess!

Back to Professor Boyle: His new book “The Public Domain” is not only available commercially, but also for free under a creative commons license. Professor Boyle is not against copyright laws, but is very concerned about the overreach of those laws, and makes an eloquent case, that this is not only robbing society of new art and science, but also a classic case of industries shooting themselves in the foot. With their strategy of locking every intellectual property up for longer and longer time, they are killing their own future revenue potential.

To quote the book’s website: “James Boyle introduces readers to the idea of the public domain and describes how it is being tragically eroded by our current copyright, patent, and trademark laws. In a series of fascinating case studies, Boyle explains why gene sequences, basic business ideas and pairs of musical notes are now owned, why jazz might be illegal if it were invented today, why most of 20th century culture is legally unavailable to us, and why today’s policies would probably have smothered the World Wide Web at its inception. Appropriately given its theme, the book will be sold commercially but also made available online for free under a Creative Commons license.”

Copyright Refrom

Maybe now is a good time as any to clarify, that I’m not an opponent of copyright in principle. I’m not necessarily an opponent of trademarks and patents either. But in my opinion laws and precedent setting court cases have gone overboard in quite a few cases.

Intellectual property laws – like any other laws – should balance the benefits of society overall with the rights of individuals. When that balance is disturbed too much, bad things are prone to happen in a country.

For example, if intellectual property laws are so tight, that only a few companies can create new products and services, because everyone else gets sued for for building a new idea on a protected old idea, then new products and services will be created less and less, since many really great new ideas come from new companies, not established ones.

Similarly, great art has been built on the shoulders of previous generations of art. For example, how many Disney classics have been built on the shoulders of the Grimm brothers and others?

A second thought, is, that if a good part, or even a majority of a population routinely breaks the law in a significantly punishable way, a society arguably becomes something like a police state. Since obviously not everyone can be thrown in prison, only those people get prosecuted for their law breaking who don’t have enough “friends in high places”. Ask anyone who has actually lived in a seriously oppressed country, how brutal that is. Even if you don’t go to prison, but live in constant fear to have a good chunk of your possessions taken away, because you have to pay large fines, it creates a similar environment.

So the irony is, that the so called democracies seem to be working their way down a rather slippery slope towards something rather backwards and dark. And that concerns me.

While I have never participated in the file sharing world of movies and music (maybe because by the time that started being possible, I could afford to buy the stuff – in my days we taped things off the radio!), I don’t think a situation where a significant majority of a generation is essentially criminal is a good thing for society. And older generations telling younger one’s just to stop doing something doesn’t really seem to work all that well.

My very simple argument is, that since commercial, artistic, technological and knowledge cycles seem to be happening in shorter time frames in our current world, copyrights and patents should probably expire sooner, rather than being lengthened. (Trademarks are a bit of a different thing, and I’ve not observed quite as much across the board nonsense in court cases, although some corporations have tried to trademark letters of the alphabet, numbers, colors and shapes – and occasionally some court has sided with them, only to be overturned later like in the case of guitar maker Gibson going after PRS.)

So rather than shortening the cycles of copyrights, there seems to be a copyright extension law passed in the US, every time Mickey Mouse is just about to become public domain. And then the hoards of industry lobbyists and US ambassadors are let loose on the rest of the world to make the applicable laws in other countries resemble US law, like we experienced in Canada just in 2008. I was depressed that our minister in charge of such issues seemed to favor closed door meetings with such lobbyists over public forums.

So I support a re-thinking of what appropriate intellectual property protection should be in a modern society. What should be “protected” and for how long needs some really good thinking by some really smart and not too selfish people. Whatever the right answer may be, this topic should NOT be discussed in private lunches and closed door meetings, but in public forums.

While maybe not quite up there with drafting a constitution, it is an important enough topic, that lawmakers and ministers and secretaries of whatever should really treat this topic as the foundation for commerce and art in our modern post-industrial societies. And I would argue, that it’s therefore not far behind a constitution in importance.

I’m not an intellectual property specialist, but I’m working and playing in areas deeply affected by such laws, so I do care.

I’ll leave it at that, since there are many more qualified sources on the web for reading up on these issues than my blog. Search terms like “copyright reform” are a good starting point.

In the mean-time many of us have decided to work and play in what we hope is a preview of a more wide-spread environment. We don’t use the stuff that others don’t want us to use, but we’re creating our own pools of music, images, movies, writing, software and more that we share with each other in various ways to varying degrees.

It’s ok, Disney and Sir Paul – keep you mouse and your Let it Be forever. We may just forget them, because you are the only one’s controlling who builds upon them. But we still remember Snowwhite and the Toccata and Fugue in Dm, arguably because others could build upon them. Remixing is okay! 🙂

Do NOT Remix this Interview (wink, wink)

Professor Lawrence Lessig is the founder of the Creative Commons, which has created the possibility of a creative sharing environment amongst music makers and other creators of art, content, or whatever you want to call people who write, paint, draw, play music, sing, compose etc. (note: I publish my writings, music, images under creative commons licenses.)

And since the Creative Commons is the creator and sponsor of my favorite remixing community ccMixter, it was with great excitement, that I watched Prof. Lessig appear on the Colbert Report, one of the popular and valuable voices of reason (all packaged into blazing satire) in an often depressing mainstream media scape.

The segment was about Prof. Lessig’s book called REMIX, a quintessential work in making the case for copyright reform. Actually, the absence of such reforms is one of the great indictments of the current generation of politicians in the western style democracies. It’s downright depressing how special interest group money rules.

While Prof. Lessig has a great sense of humor, he’s not necessarily to be confused with being a professional comedian. (Sorry Professor!) So he plays it rather straight in making the case for Copyright Reform to the fake belligerent Colbert persona, which is a parody of Bill O’Reilly’s tv program:

UPDATE (2009-01-14): As if to make Prof. Lessig’s point for him, Viacom has forced youtube to pull this video off their site from Prof. Lessig’s account. How magically insane! Fortunately I have met some incredibly smart and insightful lawyers, and obviously Prof. Lessig is one. None of them works for Viacom.

UPDATE (2009-01-19): But it’s still there in other youtube acounts. Thanks to MC Jack in the Box for finding it.

The interview closes with an “argument” between Lessig and Colbert. Lessig says “remix this interview” and Colbert says “do NOT remix this interview”.

So the fun has begun. ccMixter features the audio source of the Stephen Colbert interview with Lawrence Lessig. For those more famliar with indiba music, there’s also a session in progress there.

In the past Colbert has featured little snippets of his favorite remixes in a future episode. Assuming that he’ll do that in this case, it will be a nice feather in the cap for a few remixers.

UPDATE: Good eMXR friend essesq, in the comments pointed out a more in-depth interview of Prof. Lessig on NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross.