In this series of posts I will be sharing podcasts produced by students in my senior seminar on information technology governance. This podcasting series is called InfoNation, and I explain more about it here.
This episode was produced by UIC communication students Clarissa Shaw (15), Shelby Mrazek (15), Joseph Balich (15), Nick Isasi (15), and Alyssa Szarabajka (15). It takes an expansive look at copyright and creativity touching on law, technology, music, remix, and millennials.
[MUSIC: InfoNation theme music]
[NICK ISASI] Welcome to InfoNation, UIC’s very own podcast created by students, for students. At info-nation we discover how media, information and communication are created, governed, and used. Produced by upper level students in the department of Communication, info-nation brings academic research to help make sense of our increasingly mediated society. We go to the library so you don’t have to!
Welcome, welcome, welcome! Thank you so much for tuning in. We’ve got a great show planned for you guys today, about a topic that I think affects everyone even though we might not think about it every day: copyright. We have a few amazing guests for you today that were gracious enough to sit down with us- Thomas Leavens, a law partner at Leavens, Strand & Glover who specializes in media, intellectual, and entertainment law. We also will hear from Dr. Alexander Cummings, a professor at Georgia State University and author of The Democracy Of Sound: Music Piracy and the Remaking of American Copyrighting in the Twentieth Century. We will also hear from Bruneaux, an Atlanta-based mash up deejay and producer. We will get to them later on.
I guess I’ll get the cheesy line out of the way. Is copyright actually copyWRONG?
Now that that is out of the way, we can get started on the matter at hand. Before I get into the ‘meat and potatoes’ of copyright, I want to preface by saying how important it is to shift our thinking away from ‘arguing in favor of stealing’ and more towards the attitude of ‘arguing in favor of creativity.’ Just keep that thought in the back of your head.
In Kerri Eble’s This Is a Remix: Remixing Music Copyright to Better Protect Mashup Artists she says, “The purpose of copyright law is to promote creativity and the desire to balance the interests of primary artists and secondary artists and to consider advances in technology.” Consider advances in technology… so essentially, copyright law needs to keep up with the technology surrounding art, music, paintings, whatever it’s trying to protect at the time. So what happens with the technology in music, or whatever media you’re creating in, starts outdating the copyright law?
Thomas Leavens, the lawyer I spoke about earlier, gave us his insight on it.
[LEAVENS]: With the change of music recording and distribution and consumption in the digital era, essentially what you had is that there was a shift in control of music from the creators to consumers. Because consumers can do anything with music today that a record company can’t- they can duplicate it, they can remix it, they can compile it, they can do any number of things. And that’s what had a big significance in determining what kind of values are going to be important with respect to approaching copyright law.
Thank you to Thomas Leavens for that sound byte.
Now going off of that, let’s take a look at the obvious…a big picture per say – we all have access to the Internet. What started off as a military project has blossomed into an almost never-ending library of knowledge, data and art at our fingertips. We can share information in quite literally…seconds. If I want to text a picture of my cat to Joe, I can and I will. Isn’t it awesome that we can do that? We can use it to send stupid pictures, or use it to heighten our knowledge, or use it to collaborate with another artists on the other side of the world, or use it to find inspiration, or you can even use it when you’re a scared parent when you find out your son is diagnosed with Asperger’s. The options are literally endless.
The internet as we know it today is called by many, ‘Web 2.0,’ Web 2.0 is the idea that we can configure our internet. Think of how you listen to music today… streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify, or LastFM all have different ways of giving YOU, the listener, the ability to choose what you want to listen to and how you want to listen to it. You can create your own playlist, you can choose exactly what artist you want to listen to, and event when you want to listen to it. The idea of customizing, repurposing, and recreating is something that we have seen in human nature. Today, musicians call that remix and it has birthed a sort of ‘remix culture.’ Where many feel they are entitled to create pieces of work that are birthed from other pieces of work. This entitlement reaches much more than people who want to create music- it’s an entitlement that reaches consumerism and people who are actually buying music, not just creating it.
[LEAVENS]: One of the big challenges is that one of the important consumer values that are preeminent is comprehension of the content. People want to have everything.
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back and look at history, because copyright was not always a bad guy, at first it was put in as an incentive to get people to create more.
When Gutenberg invented the printing press it opened the doors to the first way off distributing something on a massive level. One idea, one piece of work could literally be spread around the world and be looked at by other people, word for word. Naturally, some of the people whose work was being spread wanted their credit. Enter the Statute of Anne in 1710 what we now know today as the first true copyright law. It gave authors and creators exclusive rights to their work for up to fourteen years before it went back to the ‘public domain.’ The public domain is still very alive today, albeit a shrinking idea. It is a collection of works, art and ideas that anyone is available to use without any fear of violating copyright. Basically, they can use it without permission or looking up laws regarding it.
Now, why is this such a big issue today, as opposed to twenty years ago? Well for a couple reasons that I think are extremely interlinked. Let’s look at music. Now, bear with me. What I am talking about right now is the idea of ‘popular music’ or to put it simply…whatever is making the most money at the time. Yes there are exceptions to the rule, but right now this is the rule. It is important to note that a huge chunk of recording artists’ income is coming from touring and performing live around the world. Record sales have almost taken a backseat. The days of being able to get rich off of a number 1 record are dead now.
Now let’s look at live music and music festivals. Rethink Music – a study from Berklee College of Music is quoted saying that, “Total Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festival capacity in the United States has grown by a whopping 45% since 2007, while analog performers space has stayed the same. 45%. Let’s try to give you guys a picture of that. The walk from one main stage to the other at Lollapalooza is about a mile apart from each other. Adding another 45% in size adds almost another half mile of space. In walking, that’s about ten more minutes walking, and that’s just space for audience members. Get my point? What is drawing money is EDM, whether you like it or not. World famous DJs are being thrust into ‘rockstar’ status almost overnight. Simply put, that means music is changing, I’ve seen it firsthand working in the music industry.
Traveling musicians don’t need a huge van for all their gear…they need a backpack for their laptop. Seriously. Look at how many DJ showcases there are at South by Southwest this year as opposed to four or five years ago. At a glance in 2015, that number is at 94 DJ Showcases. And that is only the official ones. The difference will be staggering between the years.
I’m not saying ‘instruments are dead’ absolutely not, I’m just trying to highlight the monumental shift in what kind of music is selling now days. With the shift in what is bringing money brings another huge shift of things such as selling and buying instruments. A turntable or sampler in many cases can be cheaper than an array of guitars. Sonny Moore, which most people know as Skrillex, admitted that he made a Grammy winning song with nothing but a laptop and a mouse in the back of a tour bus. It’s shifting. It’s a shifting, ever changing world. So why hasn’t copyright law evolved with it?
Dr. Alexander Cummings was able to give his insight regarding copyright law and the changing in music technology and culture.
[CUMMINGS]: The law has been trying to lock down these evolvements in tech and culture. And I would say, from my point of view anyway, is that the law has been too restrictive and too limited.
This has been one of the biggest problems we are faced with- a shift in popular music and technology, but no shift in the copyright laws that control this flow of information. Dr. Alexander Cummings, who we just heard from, gives his opinion in the lack of evolution regarding the copyright law and the technology around it.
[AC]: The industry doesn’t want to adapt- they don’t want to. They want things to be the way they were in 1985, and they want to promote an idea that I have to copyright and I should get the maximum money for this. But we are in a different environment now.
So the question I constantly want to make you ask yourselves is, “Why (and maybe even more importantly, HOW) do we suddenly get a stoppage in the evolution of copyright laws when the world and our culture is constantly evolving?” What I mean to say is how is it possible that the last major copyright revision was done in 1998, when we have almost completely changed how music is listened to, created, distributed and remixed? Please keep asking yourself that, if you come up with an answer please enlighten me via email at email@example.com.
To tie it in to a very current event – If you turned on any pop-music radio station in 2013, it was almost impossible not to hear the smash hit ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke ft. Pharell and T.I. Robin Thicke and Pharell were in the news as of late because they are being forced to pay 7.2 MILLION dollars in ‘damages’ to the estate of Marvin Gaye because they state that ‘Blurred Lines’ sounds too similar to the song ‘Gotta Give It Up’ by Marvin Gaye. And that is terrifying. The idea that artists can be fined after creating a song that may have a bit of a likeness..spoiler, it barely does. No melodies or lyrics are taken. Pharell, Thicke and T.I. said in a joint statement, “”While we respect the judicial process, we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward.”
The case is currently expected to go to an appeal. Thomas Leavens – The entertainment lawyer you heard from earlier expects the verdict to be over ruled during the appeal. He explains why.
[LEAVENS]: A lot of the elements that were identified as being similar in a way that created liability…those things are not copyrightable themselves. They are not a part of the composition. This was not a case that was brought on the basis of a claim that a particular recording was infringed; they are saying that a particular composition was infringed. And to say that some of the sounds in the sound recording constituted elements of the composition that were infringed is a pretty big leap.
Dr. Alexander Cummings from Georgia State University tends to agree on the ridiculousness of the lawsuit.
[CUMMINGS]: This lawsuit is ludicrous. There is no precedent and copyright law for Robin Thicke or Pharell to be held accountable for infringing Marvin Gaye. This is just a style, it’s a sound, it’s a certain groove…but none of that stuff has been pressed in a copyright law. Copyright law protects the lyrics and melody of the song.
Thomas Leavens was able to comment on what he thinks would happen if the court case was not overturned.
[LEAVENS]: If this was something that holds off in appeal, then it’s going to create, I think, a lot of reexamination of what kind of advice attorneys give to people as to what is permissible and what is not.
Now that, I hope, I have illustrated why this is a problem I hope to shed some more information on why and how these copyright laws have overextended their reach, and why it is so hard to be able to tell artists what they can and cannot touch or draw inspiration from.
Aram Sinnreich, a professor at
Rutgers American University and author of Mashed up: Music, technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture he says, “Sampling should be called respiration because it is the absorption, alteration, and exhalation of something external and ubiquitous.” Think about this quote for a second. Really think about it. I’m going to try and simplify it with one sentence, are you listening? Nothing, absolutely nothing is created in a vacuum. Aram Sinnreich is saying that the art of sampling is akin to respiration because it is something EVERYONE does, conscious or not. You absorb oxygen, alter it within your body and exhale it as carbon dioxide and it is everywhere. This, simply put is the same as sampling. When any idea is put forward by a creator, the idea will have pieces or sometimes chunks of prior experiences, memories and culturally processed memories. It’s an idea that not only everyone participates in but should accept with open arms! Think about it as a broader idea… why are you the person you are today? Were you born like this, or during the course of your life certain experiences and teachings shift the way you learn different things? I argue that that is true.
Personally, I do not have any skill at creating the music I feel so adamantly about, but I was able to sit down with Breneaux, Atlanta based mash up DJ and producer to shed some light on his thoughts. Breaneaux is a mashup artist, similar to Girl Talk, in which he cuts up and pastes different songs together to create a brand new song. It’s like an extremely intricate collage made of different songs
[ISASI] Bruneaux, thank you so much for talking with us. First, to kick us off, will you tell me how long have you been doing the Bruneaux project for?
[BRUNEAUX]: I started off back in 2007…I made just an album after listening to Girl Talk and gave it to my friends. Then I think it was 2010, or 2009 maybe, I decided to make another one and then that’s when I kind of went public with it and came up with the Bruneaux moniker.
[ISASI]: When you’re creating your mashup songs, or compositions, or albums, do you ever see yourself as breaking any laws doing anything wrong?
[BRUNEAUX]: Um, no…I mean, there is a law that says that we can essentially do this as long as we don’t, like, profit from in monetarily, so I don’t see it as doing anything wrong.
[ISASI]: What drew you to creating these mash up songs instead of creating your own compositions?
[BRUNEAUX]: There’s just something about this. I mean, it’s fun. It’s like a giant puzzle and I gotta put stuff together and figure out little tricky things that I like to do.
[ISASI]: To tie this all into current events, I’ve been asking all of my guests this, just because I want to see where their minds are at, and especially I want to hear from you, a musician who is constantly creating music, especially sampled based music. What do you think about the recent court case regarding Robin Thicke, Pharell, and T.I. having to pay 7.2 million dollars to the Marvin estate?
[BRUNEAUX]: I mean, it’s different. I don’t think it’s copyright…I feel like ‘Blurred Lines’ is inspired by that song. The songs are similar but they’re not the same. Marvin Gaye is trying to take Pharell to court for ‘Happy’ and that song sounds nothing like it besides that it is upbeat. I mean, it’s ridiculous to me. There’s a difference between sampled, ripped off, and inspired by. There’s three completely different things.
[ISASI]: Do you have any parting words you would like to say about your music, your performing, and your producing, in regards to the copyright law as it stands today? Is it affecting you, is it going to hinder you at all, do you even think about it at all?
[BRUNEAUX]: No man, I just do it because I enjoy to do it. I mean, I’ve had a lot of people who want me to go into original stuff. It’s not a matter of creativity or anything, it’s a matter of I just like doing this. It’s intriguing to me and it’s fun. And, just, if everything stays the way it is with copyright then I should be fine.
A huge thank you to Bruneaux for sitting down with us. I wanted to bring someone like Bruneaux on the show with us to give you guys an idea of what the thought process of someone who is constantly creating these mashups, especially when you have artists like Girl Talk being called, “A lawsuit waiting to happen” by The New York Times – especially because I know not all of us are musicians.
These mashup artists are popping up everywhere. People hear a few songs and because they have a different upbringing, or a different view of the song as the original artist take it upon themselves to ‘mash them up.’ For example, a subreddit by the name of ‘/r/mashups’ has almost 70 thousand subscribers. If you are not familiar with reddit, it’s a website that can aggregate all different things from different websites, and their can be different niche subreddits (ex: /r/mashups). The subreddit is filled with posts with requests for mashups, requests for assistance and requests for reviews on their creations. These communities are slowly sprouting everywhere online. It’s going to be hard when the copyrightists are in the minority. When peer-to-peer users are no longer seen as ‘pirates’ or ‘robbers’ is when we can begin to see a difference.
These communities sprouting and becoming together as one create a constant battle for lawmakers. In Nancy Baym’s Rethinking The Music Industry she says, “Music audiences use online tools to pool affect, create social identities, collect intelligence, share interpretations, and create for each other. The real challenge for the industry, recession or boom, is to work with rather than against these dynamics. ”
We need an alternative; we need a major overhaul in copyright law as we see it. Or at least people seeing it in different light. Lawrence Lessig, an extremely prominent man, has been extremely busy implementing and promoting the use of creative commons in all pieces of art published online. Although this wouldn’t be an overhaul, it would just be a certain change in the licensing between creative arts.
The vision behind creative commons is simple, and I quote: “Realizing the full potential of the Internet – universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.” That’s a quote from the Creative Commons website.
Doesn’t that sound appealing to you? By using Creative Commons you can choose to give up the Copyright: All Rights Reserved that is automatically placed on anything you create and open it up to use from anyone! As long as they credit you of course and don’t make money from it. You aren’t hoarding these ideas, or creations for yourself but rather sending them out into the world in hopes that other creators do something with it. Maybe something you never thought of. I think this is the future.
Here is an excerpt from Creative Commons regarding how exactly creative commons helps. Here is a video produced Creative Commons that explains exactly how Creative Commons can be used by creators to make sure that their works are protected, but also open to be used by other artists.
Creative Commons Video: When something is created, say a photo or a document, or a music track, it’s automatically protected by copyright. Copyright enables people to say who can share and use their creations. You must always obtain someone’s permission before sharing or reusing their work, even if it’s posted online. But what if a creator wants everyone to use their work, without the hassle of granting permission over and over? This is where Creative Commons can help. Creative Commons provides licensing tools that are free to use. You can apply a license to your work, which refines your copyright and streamlines how you give permission.
I hope they were able to explain Creative Commons more eloquently than I would ever be able to. I was lucky enough to have asked Dr. Alexander Cummings his opinion on the Creative Commons and the things Creative Commons can bring to creators.
[CUMMINGS]: I think the Creative Commons is actually a really good adaptation, I think, of the system, because there are people who don’t mind their work being reproduced, and they don’t want other people to feel inhibited by copyright law from, in terms of reproducing it. I think this is a really powerful business. I think that we have seen in the past fifteen years, or in the past ten years, people actually speak up and say ‘we want to counter the pro-copyright, pro-music industry, pro-movie industry, sort of legacy-position’. I think it’s been really healthy.
So there you have it, folks. Is Creative Commons finally the huge step in the right direction we need to push policy makers and copyrightists toward a different path? Toward a path that can be able to create a more free-flowing culture? Only time will tell.
Thank you so much for listening, everybody. We hope we were able to shed a light on a subject that otherwise may have been dark to you. We want you to be able to look at copyright, or any social matter, and create a social discourse that everyone can be involved in. How and why do the lawmakers get to decide what artists get to create and how they create it? And more importantly, why are we using outdated copyright laws in an age where technology is thriving?
Again- we want to give a shout out and a huge thank you to our guests- Thomas Leavens, Dr. Alexander Cummings and Bruneaux. And another huge thank you to Lawrence Lessig and all of the work that he has been doing with the Creative Commons.
Have a great day everybody, and we hope you learned something today!
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This podcast is a class exercise and it does not represent the opinions of the University of Illinois at Chicago or any of its departments.