Sunday, February 17, 2013

Copyright

A week before last Wednesday I participated in a panel at the SPIE's conference on Electronic Imaging on Audio Identification and CopyFraud. Content identification is how I earn my living in general, and Audio Identification in specific, and although the panel veered more toward the technical and commercial questions surrounding Audio ID rather than the issues of hijacked revenue streams and false DMCA notices, even touching on the subject of Copyright in the Digital Age stirred up a thick dark muck which had been crusted over through the years, but which now threatens to break through and spill out over you, my dear reader, an assuredly idiotic act given that too much ink has already been spilt on the topic, but no matter.

My own attitudes toward copyright are idiosyncratic. So much of the discussion in the Slashdots and Boing-boings and EFFs deal with popular culture - songs and T-shirts and national tours - and I come from a distinctly non-popular culture and therein lies some of the difference. I've never cared much whether people copied what I did, and maybe that comes from the exposure at a young age to the endless Variations on a Theme by So-and-So, and maybe the Read/Write culture is the birthright of the Classical Composer. But even more so, almost everything good or bad is sitting on my website: scores and recordings and videos, and I suppose if someone took that as an indication that they could do whatever they wanted with what is there, I suppose it's possible that I wouldn't care, copyright notices or no.

Case in point: during one of the performances of Sub Pontio Pilato, I noticed the sound guy had hooked up a recorder to the sound board and when I asked him about it later he said he really liked that one chord progression - and yes, I liked that one chord progression too - so he decided to just record it so he could use it in his next electronica something-or-other. Although imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose there is something just the slightest bit odd about someone absconding outright with a section of a work that took you 10 years to write and many years of fundraising to produce, walking off with it at the press of a button. But really, what can one do?  Once a bit of art is out in the world, it's really out in the world, no longer yours no matter how many F-16s are sold to unfriendly countries to convince them to prop up all the Dumbo and Bambi and Steamboat Willie protection treaties crafted by the Disney corporation.

But, on the other hand, why couldn't he have just taken the time to have written an equally good chord progression himself? Yes, I'm aware of the fact that I couldn't have conceived of that progression without standing on the shoulders of giants from Pythagorus on up, and we all borrow or steal from others at some fundamental linguistic level, but there is something uniquely mine about that bit of music, yes? Something special that caught his eye? I doubt he is going to give me attribution when he spins it in some after hours nightclub, looking good, while some sweet young cis or trans boy or girl on the latest designer sex-enhancing drug rubs him or herself against him in the dark. And didn't I work hard to give that bit some context, a context born of 10 years of sweat and toil, only to have it be cast alone and unprotected against the dangers of the world in which it now finds itself, its morality and its virtue unguarded? What if, in that moment of exposure, underpants stripped off while it attempts to cover itself with its hands it is laughed at, bullied, made fun of?  Or what if it is taken up at a political rally in a sweaty and fecund chant, a chant in support of someone who doesn't share my libertine sensibilities? What if a group of greatly evil corporate thugs steal it to sell more genetically modified soap, soap that contains compounds that don't register as date-rape drugs on the local police officer's field test kit?  As with all things, it takes years to create and minutes to destroy, and my little work, a feast for the ears, my child and my hope, can be so easily abused and raped and tossed onto the slag heap with all the rest churned through the great capitalist commercial music threshing machine.

I remember when one of my first LPs was mastered by Phil Brown and he told us the story of working just a few years before on Stairway to Gilligan's Island aka Gilligan's Island (Stairway), a tune consisting of the lyrics to the Gilligan's Island theme song over the instrumental bits of Stairway to Heaven. Even though quite clearly a parody and even though hard to imagine how it would negatively affect the sales of the Led Zeppelin composition, it seems the Led Zeppelin lawyers had no sense of humor whatsoever, and I remember reading later that, in the court documents, they referred to the original work as something akin to a national treasure, an untouchable aspect of our common heritage, a masterwork to be protected at all costs.
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