Was it just two weeks ago that I discussed darknets? Time really does fly when you’re having fun. I was reminded of that column as I read Scott McLemee’s discussion about the out-of-control litigation surrounding music sampling. Like McLemee, when I heard about the Ohio Players court case cited in the article’s lead, my first reaction was “They’re still together?”
Later in the article, McLemee notes that it usually the case that the person who owns the copyright isn’t a person — which doesn’t actually answer the Ohio Players question — it’s a corporation, generally the label. And thanks to copyright laws that increasingly favor the copyright holder — badly skewing the purpose of copyright protection — the age-old creative process is being threatened.
Okay, not really. Creativity being what it is (creative) means that artists will always find a way around roadblocks.
As he reviews the fascinating-sounding (yes, indeed, I do need therapy) Steal This Music: How Intellectual Property Law Affects Musical Creativity by Joanna Demers, he realizes how much the creative process is being ruled by copyright owners. For example, in the parenthetical above, I “sampled” a quote from a well-known book. Granted, I changed the words slightly to suit my own creative purpose, but fans of that book will recognize the reference immediately. Stealing or homage? I think the latter, and I suspect the author, a former librarian, would too. This is how art has always been created.
The problem, of course, is that artistic expression is a commodity, and rather than taking a step back and thinking reasonable thoughts, copyright owners are circling the wagons. “We need more protectionism!” they say. Add to that the idea the copyrights can be bought and sold without the artist ever knowing what’s happening. And of course, the increasingly muddled and capricious laws that make determining what works falls under copyright a nightmare.
Though it will dismay parents everywhere, there’s an excellent chance that today’s kids won’t grow up to be doctors — not when copyright is so lucrative. Yeah, it’s hard to believe I typed that sentence. For the rest of us — non-lawyers, I mean — the job is to educate artists about the laws underpinning their work. Sure, it’s a bit like herding cats; when you’re creating, you’re not thinking, “Hmm, you know, I need to hire a lawyer to make sure this two-second bit isn’t violating copyright. After all, Hüsker Dü had those same notes in succession, same tempo in a song they released in 1984 on an album that’s been out-of-print for over a decade.”
Step one for artists: own your work. You are the best judge of how and when it can and should be used:
“What I like to tell undergrads passing through USC,” says Demers, “is that the era of mega-millions-earning stars is really coming to a close, and they can’t expect to make large sums of money through music. What they should aim to do is not lose money, and there are several clever ways to avoid this, like choosing a label that allows the artist to retain control over the copyrights.”