Monday, September 27, 2010

week/module iv: freedom of expression

From copyrighting human genes and prohibiting generic production of potentially life-saving drugs, to the severe constraints against filmmakers and musicians, all of the material was educational and…disheartening. There is so much that has lit a fire under me.

The one shining light for me this week is Lawrence Lessig and his partnership in the Creative Commons. Not only is he fighting for a larger public domain, he has found a way to do something about it. The CC’s free licenses allow for creative flexibility by artists in the use of their original work, thereby allowing some breathing room once their work is put out for the world to see, hear, etc. Unfortunately, the government has not caught on the copyright law needs to be more “porous,” allowing credit where credit is due, but not strangle holding future creativity on the original idea.

And, without people like Professor Lessig, and hopefully many more in the future, I believe that are freedoms of expression© are, right now, being diminished every day. In the world of cultural criticism, I should be free to praise or criticize what I like, especially since corporate culture is now an indelible part of our daily lives. As the reading and film covered, I cannot legally criticize an individual, a corporation or use their logo on my web site. The artist who created, and then was sued for, the Barbie in a Blender exhibit is an example of how corporations dictate and control their image and products to the point where we can’t utilize them for expressing our thoughts about the world around us. Or we’re at least very afraid to because we don’t want to get sued. Well, I don’t care to see 500 McDonald’s commercials every time I watch TV, or 50 McDonald’s billboards on my way to work. Can I sue them for being obnoxious? No, but they can definitely sue me if I publish a blog with negative opinions of their corporation. This is not democratic and this is not free.

I could go on and on about this, but just one more point to make about how copyright stifles creativity, the one thing the law was originally written to protect. As the movie stated, there has been nothing entirely new since the invention of fire and it has been this way for eons. A fellow poster talked about the Kelly Clarkson/Beyonce song debate. This is not new, and neither ripped off from the other. There is a term called jazz contrafacts, which Wikipedia defines as “a musical composition built out of an already existing one, most often by using the original tune's chord progression as a basis for a new composition.” One cannot copyright a chord change and because of this, jazz musicians created a huge catalog of rich, vibrant, new and original music was created. The same happened, as Krenshaw described in his book, with Woody Guthrie, Marianne Moore, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, and thousands more. A rich public domain serves as the foundation for continuous new creative endeavors, and also denies the misappropriation of things that can’t be copyrighted in the first place. Case in point: in the Amen Break film, a UK company included the Amen Break in a software sampling kit and copyrighted it 2002. Well, that’s nice, but you can’t really copyright a drumbeat, just like you can’t copyright a chord change.

My husband and I are both musicians, and I believe that credit should be given when and where it is due. But if I write a song, the idea comes from somewhere. And since I haven’t been living in a cave I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of influences so who knows what will show up. And without file sharing and the Internet, the RIAA and a handful of corporations that control the music business would completely control the music that I could be exposed to. Record companies give contracts to artists that are marketable, and who will make them money. Telling me I cannot download a track from a great, unsigned band is forcing me to have bad taste, forcing me to limit my musical experience, and infringing on my free choice.

Like Mazzone’s reading last week stated, the government has got to do something to redistribute the power of choice back to the people, and re-amend the laws that were originally written to protect both the author’s idea and the ability of the public to synthesize that idea.


  1. Diana, thanks for this impassioned synthesis! It seems that this week's reading really touched on your own interests and experiences. Great job.

  2. Diana, I will seize upon your last paragraph for my comment. I am worried about a government solution, since it seems as if legislation always ends up favoring the corporations. McLeod made a great point (I thought) that we don't need more legislation, since the laws already side with the people's interests. What is needed is for more people to stand up to the corporations in court (p. 147). Though there have been setbacks for defendants (Biz Markie), I was impressed with the number of times the courts have backed the artists being sued by big companies. Defending oneself is, of course, extremely costly and that is the whole problem. A possible solution: just as the ACLU has taken up the cost of defending some of those targeted for sampling, we should encourage and contribute to any organization that stands up for artists against corporations in these situations. Once the economic playing field is made more even, the corporations will no longer have any real advantage, and the justice of each case can be settled on its merits. No doubt corporations would be much discouraged against filing suit once they perceive that they will actually have to go through a trial and can no longer count on bullying the little guys into submission.
    When is sampling fair use and when is it a copyright violation? How much sampling is ok before copyright becomes an issue? These questions, it seems, have not been conclusively answered in court, due at least partly to the unwillingness of small actors to take on the large media powers. Until more cases are actually heard and ruled upon by a judge, the murkiness of the issue creates fear and uncertainty, effectively stifling artistic creativity.

  3. "Telling me I cannot download a track ... is forcing me to have bad taste ..." -- I love it, Diana! Look at all the different musical genres mentioned in the assignments this week. We cannot accept that it's okay to limit much of what is going on -- we all will lose. I think of one of my favorite groups, the Dixie Chicks, who did not face any copyright battles (that I'm aware of), but a few years ago were effectively silenced by the country music industry and many "fans" after criticizing a U.S. president. (I recommend the documentary from 2006 about these events, "Shut Up and Sing."

    I also thought it was interesting that "A Remixer's Manifesto" from the "RiP" movie had four points, just like someone else we have talked about a lot had four main points. The four points are not all parallel; for example, the Manifesto talks a lot about the past (but there was less "past" in Mill's time, right?). The Manifesto's last point -- "To build free societies you must limit the control of the past" -- mirrors Mill's belief that there must be constant discussion and circulation of new ideas because that will get us closer to the truth. In the present day, we obviously cannot be satisfied with the way things are now; we have many, many examples in these assignments of the censorship that is taking place and the innovation that is being stifled. We won't have an answer tomorrow, but we must continue to educate ourselves, listen to both sides, and discuss possible solutions, as Mill would advise us to do.

  4. I agree with your sentiment that “the material was educational and…disheartening.”I would add frustrating as well. It makes me wish, on some level, for a different life. McLeod’s assertion that the answer to the problem is for more people to stand up to corporations and not be scared by the threat of litigation is understandable and inspiring, but it is less than practical for most people – which is proven by the fact that more people don’t stand up for their rights. It makes me wish, on some level, for a different life. With a family to support, I don’t have the time or the resources to devote to battling evil corporations in court – the right thing to do in the big picture unfortunately doesn’t mean much when you can’t buy groceries. Even McLeod recognizes the battles are to be picked carefully when he decides to abandon handing out First Amendment fliers at the mall once the police are called. I admire those that are willing to risk it all to fight the good fight, but it can’t be expected of everyone. I don’t think trying to convince the government that a legislative solution is needed is necessarily going to be the end solution either. It is just as valiant as fighting legal action (or the threat of it), but in the end the laws aren’t the problem it is how they are interpreted and manipulated. Any legislation that is strong enough to actually undue some of the harm is likely never to pass; like Congressman Boucher’s Digital Media Consumers’ Rights Act, mentioned by McLeod on page 330. It was shut down by lobbyists before it even got started. I think that more likely sources of solution are movements like Creative Commons. It works with creators to tweak existing laws, creating more freedom without having to completely overhaul the system. Maybe in time, I take the liberty to be optimistic here, the little cc of Creative Commons will overtake “big C” in as the standard mark on copyrighted material.
    Whatever the solution, the hope is in educating people about the issues. I was (and still am to a large extent) woefully ignorant of much of what we have discussed in this class before the term started. The more I know, the more I want to do, even if it is only done in small ways. I think that if more people knew the issues and their rights (or the lack there of) then more people that were in a position to would fight the legal battles or help push through legislation the favored the freedom of information or would take advantage of things like Creative Commons. The ray of sunshine is that, although the internet has created new issues in this field, things like file sharing and the distribution of information in general have already made more people aware of these restrictions then ever before. People just have to be shown that they don’t need to be afraid of it all.

  5. Alcibiades, I share your reservations regrading the efficacy of legislative solutions to the abuse of copyrights, trademarks and patenting. Regarding copyright, there are a number of artists that are operating as copyright provacatuers and in some instances actually winning battles. In my blog post I mention the DJ act Girl Talk whose album is made entirely of uncleared samples. To my knowledge he has not yet been sued for copyright infringement. many other artists are also recognizing the creative value in sharing. It is no longer uncommon to see artists offer the stems of their music for fans to remix. Major record labels have given up on the draconian measure of suing individuals for file sharing. So on the cultural front there are some battles being won.
    However, I don't see the same thing happening in regards to bio-tech or other patents. There just aren't a legion of amateurs out there with basement labs that are able to flout a bio-tech firm's patents in an attempt to cure cancer or some other intractable disease. The only way that we are going to combat corporate power in this arena is from the grass roots. So we agree, in this regard. But the solution will ultimately have be a legislative one, even if the original catalyst is born of a grassroots movement.

  6. Zach and everyone: you are right to point out that it simply not practical for most people to make themselves test cases/martyrs for a cause such as a relaxing or reimagining of copyright law. But what does that mean for all of you as possible/future/current librarians and information professionals? Could a policy advocacy role be a part of your professional duties? What would that look like? What about taking on employment in the area of policy work itself? Having lived/worked in D.C. for a period of time in this area, I can tell you that the lawyers who tend to gravitate toward that field tend to welcome and respect people with the kinds of preparations you are receiving in LIS programs - and they need your voices, too. Who among us envisions making work in these areas part of your job description?

    I'd like to point everyone to Larry Lessig's introduction to McLeod's book, which is one of the reasons I chose it for you to read, in which he reminds us all that laws are not handed down from on high but are human constructs and subject to mutability and change. That's important to remember as we carry on. Great comments, everyone.

  7. David, if you are a Girl Talk fan, be sure to check out the optional movie I directed everyone to this week in this post: . It features Girl Talk throughout the movie; he is its main subject.

  8. As a musician myself, a drummer to specific, the Amen Break film left me with some difficult things to ponder. For example, the actual beat itself - while tricky - is not impossible to re-create. You could even take it a step further and imitate the drum tunings, room sound, eq, etc., until you have a workable approximation of break on the Winstons record, which you could then "legally" use as your own. It's not quite sampling, but it's also part of a musical tradition that's almost as old as music itself. Compare this with what happened to George Harrison some years back when he, by his own account, unconsciously borrowed some chord changes from The Chiffons and wound up in court for it. Apparently, you can "steal" as much as is needed, drum-wise, but if you play a melodic instrument, you have to be extra careful.

    Also, while I'm on about the Amen Break, consider the work of this guy. Is what he's doing sampling?