Thursday, 30 October 2008

This started as a simple reply to a link (http://government.zdnet.com/?p=4152) my dad sent me. It’s about Constitutional questions surrounding the RIAA’s litigation against people accused of sharing music via P2P.

My reply:

I believe a lot of what the RIAA relies on is that copyright, although drawn from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, is in the Civil code, not the Criminal code. As part of civil code, they are not as tightly bound by the excessive fines and unusual punishment clauses of the 8th amendment. Besides, the constitution really only controls what the government can do, or not do (as it’s mostly prohibitions), to the people. It doesn’t so much control what one person can do to another.

There’s nothing to stop you from suing someone for $1-million because they stepped on your lawn. You’re just not likely to get it because the judge and the jury in a civil case aren’t bound to sympathize with you.

I’m not saying the RIAA is right. Quite the contrary. I think they’re hopelessly misguided in suing their customers in the manner they have. I think that copyright law, as it exists today, is hopelessly broken. I think the attempts to “fix” or “strengthen” copyright law (things like the DMCA) are hopelessly anti-consumer.

The entertainment industry routinely lobbies for trade agreements and treaties, which they then lobby other countries to sign onto, then come back to the US government cajoling (demanding?) they adjust existing laws and create new ones to support the newly ratified treaty that they essentially bought.

With that in mind, and as a creative artist, what do I think is reasonable? My photography is bound by copyright. Every creative work, whether writing, photos, video, music, software, etc. is. The creator, or artist, isn’t even required to register their copyright any more; although doing so provides extra protections under the law. So what do I want? What do I think is fair?

I think 25 years is fair. That should be plenty of time for me to realize any monetary benefit from selling or licensing my creative work. After that, it should fall to the public domain. If I can’t make money off it in those 25 years, then I’m obviously incorrect in my assessment of the value of a given work.

I don’t think that we should be able to perpetually renew a copyright, nor should it be able to pass down by inheritance to extend the 25 years to something beyond my passing.

25 years from date of creation, no matter who owns the rights. If my descendants want to make a living from my work, they will just have to hope I die early and leave it to them in my will — the clock is ticking.

Even after the 25 years, just having the older materials around doesn’t mean you’ll do something wonderful. I’m a photographer, so I’ll use Ansel Adams as part of my example. If all of his photos were in the public domain, I could assemble them into a book, but I’d still have to bring something to the table. I’d need to offer some kind of commentary or interpretation, or add color in some way. I’d need to do something to make my use interesting. Anything less and I’m just some guy with a fancy coloring book.

So, what about sampling and derivative works? 10% seems fair, with credit. That covers education and criticism too. It let’s everyone do something new and allows someone to be inspired by your work and hopefully create something new and interesting.

Sure, 10% doesn’t stop one band from using the bass-line or central riff from another band’s song. Sure they can build a song from that and still fall within the scope of what I’d allow. It’s a double-edged sword too. If your work isn’t interesting, you’ll only look like a schmuck.

10% won’t stop one film-maker from building their movie around a pivotal scene from that of another, but if their movie isn’t entertaining, then they’re just a hack. Remember, Hollywood has been doing this same basic thing for years.

The real problem comes in trying to figure out what to do when someone breaks the rules. What is an appropriate punishment?

The current laws provide for damages from $750 per use up to $15000 each. For some things that seems far too high (sharing a single song when the price is only $1 via iTunes) and other’s it’s far too low (that same song when it’s used in an advertisement). And what constitutes a single use? Each person that hears an ad, once for every time the ad runs, or just once total because it’s only one ad?

Any off-the-cuff thinking here quickly falls apart. At first 10 times the price of the original item seems like a good idea. A song on iTunes goes for 99 cents. Is 10 bucks enough to convince people behave themselves, especially when they may or may not get caught?

What if it was 10x original value with a $1000 minimum? While it would probably discourage the average consumer, what about commercial misuse? Even $1000 isn’t enough to prevent a radio or TV station from taking a chance on an infringing use. What would stop an advertiser from using any old song in their advertisement or a photograph as the background to a presentation for an internal meeting if all they’d have to pay is $1000, assuming they got caught?

Clearly I don’t have all the answers. Even as an artist I can only wrap my brain around maybe half of it before my head explodes.

Wednesday, 01 October 2008

As I suspect will happen every year through this project, 1967 saw some big milestones in music. It was an important year in psychedelic rock with releases by The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and more.

Several bands formed in 1967, among them Ted Nugent, George Clinton, Sly & the Family Stone, The Stooges, Captain Beefheart, Chicago, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Genesis.

1967 was the year of one of the most important concerts in music history – The Monterey Pop Festival – with the first major performances by Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, plus the first big American appearances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix. The concert was huge and became a template for future music festivals, including the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

As if those firsts weren’t enough, Monterey included performances by groups like Simon & Garfunkle, The Animals, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Mamas & the Papas, Ravi Shankar, and Grateful Dead. Truly a mix of international acts and a variety of music styles.

The Beatles didn’t do too bad in 1967, releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. One of my favorite Beatles songs, “Strawberry Fields Forever” came out as part of a double A-side single (“Penny Lane” was the other half) that year as well. The song raised the bar for what a pop record should be and it’s quite possibly the single-most influential songs they ever did.

Believe it or not the Bee Gees’, widely regarded as a Disco-era act, released their first album in 1967, called Bee Gees’ 1st, a decidedly psychedelic record.

Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow came out in 1967, with the Top 40 hits “Sombody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” I’ll admit, I prefer a cover version of “White Rabbit” that Blue Man Group did many years later. It’s probably the most often cited band and album when San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury counterculture comes up in discussion.

Lest we forget genres other than rock, we’ve got a couple each by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, plus releases from Taj Majal, Willie Bobo, Howlin’ Wolf, and B. B. King.

1967 also brought us The Doors self-titled, debut album, with classic-rock staples “Break On Through (To the Other Side)” and “Light My Fire.” This may be heresy, but I’ve never been a huge Doors fan. Still, I can’t argue with their influence on rock-n-roll and The Doors is an album every well-rounded collection should include.

It’s tempting to pick Are You Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but it’s hard to know which version to choose. The US/Mexico release has several differences from the original UK version. “Red House” is on the UK release, but “Hey Joe” replaced it in the US. “Purple Haze” appears on the US version, as does “The Wind Cries Mary,” my favorite song from the album.

I’m going to have to go with The Velvet Underground’s debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. The album is a hallmark for its experimental performance sensibilities, but was largely ignored when it was released. That may have been due, in part, to it’s controversial subject matter. Open discussion of things like sexual deviancy, S&M, prostitution, and drug abuse are hard to take now, let alone in 1967.

Today it’s one of the most influential and critically lauded albums in history.

To me it’s the those very same controversial subjects that make the The Velvet Underground and Nico such an important album too. Lou Reed wrote most of the lyrics on the album, but didn’t pick the topics for shock value. Instead, they were just a logical marriage of gritty subject matter and music.

The Velvet Underground is one of the few bands that I have consciously gone back to find as my musical interests grew more varied. I’ve always thought of them as an early punk group, but no matter how you slice it the importance of this album and it’s influence on so many to come along later is cannot be denied.