Copyright: The future of America in a nutshell

I'm probably still using this image illegally.

I’m probably still using this image illegally.

A few bits of blog housekeeping:

1) This is the second part of a searing two-part expose of, I guess, uh, iTunes and copyright law and the Supreme Court and probably the 1% and maybe the Ivy League if I get to it and perhaps something about Standard Oil or the Kennedys or something. At any rate, Part 1 can be read here.

2) I am many things, but stylish is not one of them, and that carries over into what this blog looks like. After receiving some feedback that my blog looked like shit (the actual words might have actually been “urine-in-my-eyes-and-face terrible”), I’m trying a different theme that, at least to my eyes, looks better. Of course, I thought the last one was fine, so what the hell do I know?

3) I completely neglected to mention Digital Rights Management (DRM) in the course of my screed yesterday, something which a Facebook commenter reminded me of and which got the old blood boiling once more. Suffice it to say that shit is annoying and I hate it and it is the greatest argument in favor of eMusic, who trade the glitz, glamour, and selection of iTunes for having just plain-ass mp3 files with no silly protection schemes built in to them. Note: eMusic paid nothing for that recommendation. Unless they’re reading this and wish to…

Now then, on to Part 2 of my rant.

When I refer to copyright as the future of America in a nutshell, what I mean is that the battle over copyright protections serves as a microcosm for every other battle that America is currently waging with itself. At its core, the argument about how long copyright protections should be granted and what counts as intellectual property and “do you REALLY own this book that you paid legal currency for and is a physical item in the known realm of human senses?” philosophical debates are about the thing that everything is always about: money. Copyright is really no different from marginal tax rates and entitlement reforms and defense spending – regardless of what rhetoric exists and what reasonable points may be made on either side of the issue, it’s about income, cultural hegemony, and legacies.

This is the point where I start talking like a Marxist and say things like “copyright doesn’t protect artists, it protects corporations!” and vow to never pump BP gas EVER AGAIN and boycott Black Friday at Walmart! I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say I’m not particularly leftist politically, because I guess most of that sentence is true on its own merits (although I’m boycotting Black Friday at Walmart less out of solidarity with my fellow man and more out of my solidarity with my own mental health).

The most prominent corporation and easiest group to feel fine about angrily shaking a finger at is the Walt Disney Company, whose intense lobbying (along with that of the Motion Picture and Recording Industry Associations of America) led to the passage of the Copyright Term Extension Act in 1998. The “Sonny Bono Act,” as it was known, accomplished four main things. It extended copyright protection an additional 20 years to absolutely retarded 70 years after the author’s death (70 fucking years!…and even longer for works with corporate authorship). It extended the copyright protection of works published before 1 January 1978 an additional 20 years to a downright laughable-because-I-seriously-can’t-believe-that’s-actually-real total of 95 years. It assured any additional works that were published in 1923 or later that were protected by the existing laws of 1998 would not enter the public domain until 2019 at the earliest.  And finally, it reminded us one last time just how dangerous it is to get fucked up on prescription drugs and go skiing, or be married to Cher for that matter. Look, just don’t emulate Sonny Bono is all I’m saying, unless you want to be included on this list of famous skiing deaths, and even then, you may not be famous, in which case you won’t even make the damn list.

Now then, what are the ramifications of this bullshit law?

The first, most important one is the preservation of our cultural history, or lack thereof. It’s not very difficult to imagine hundreds of first edition novels, director’s cut films, studio sessions, and all kinds of other fascinating shit languishing in a fucking attic somewhere while there are dozens of qualified and eager archivists and experts who would welcome the opportunity to preserve these materials for future generations. Disney may know how to protect the reels of Dumbo just fine, but they also made $4.8 billion last year.

The second, arguably as important one is the enrichment of underserved communities through the arts. Earlier this year, Professor Lawrence Golan, in an effort to broaden the available repertoire to his orchestra in Yakima, WA by allowing more works (particularly those of foreign composers like Shostakovich and Stravinsky) into the public domain, fought the copyright laws and lost, an outcome predicted years earlier by the Bobby Fuller Four. The residents of Yakima, WA and similar towns and cities are essentially forced out of performing this music because of the prohibitive rental costs on these copyrighted works.

The third, and the one that ultimately ties in to my entire point about copyright being a microcosm of the nation in general, is the brazen “money-grab” foundation upon which it rests. For a law that was originally designed to foster creativity, copyright protection has now become essentially the opposite: my short film that culminates in a beautiful montage about 1930’s New York City nightlife and its impact on race relations would be perfect if I had Rhapsody in Blue accompanying it, but in order to do that I need a shit ton of money to give to the Gershwin Estate, none of whom have, as far as I can tell, created anything themselves. Once you break into the economic stratosphere, you remain there at all costs, something the Gershwins, the Lerners, the Rodgers, the Hammersteins, and dozens of others have all learned and learned well.

When I lived in Little Rock, I worked at a 5-star hotel that was a historic building and all that shit, really fancy (like tuxedos and vests fancy), and owned by Warren Stephens, the CEO (a position he got after his father stepped down) of Stephens Inc. (a company started by his uncle). He’s got a wife and kids, and every time I saw them they were all very nice to me and I don’t have an unkind word to say about any of them as people (or as car owners…he drove a pretty sweet custom Maserati). But once their family entered into the rarefied air of the super-wealthy (sometime during his childhood I would assume), they were subsequently put in position to assert financial and cultural dominance over those around them. I would assume that someday his children will take over his business and continue to make it profitable, but not under any sense of human justice or fairness or merit…just the plain fucking luck of having grandparents and great-grandparents who made it big and kept it in the family. Coming from that kind of family does not guarantee success, but it does all but guarantee something much better: never failing.

It’s an impossible trap, though. Even the most hardened warrior in the history of mankind couldn’t shake it. All his life Genghis Khan rewarded merit, loyalty, honesty, and hard work, not giving a shit about lineage but only about getting shit done…until the time came for him to bequeath his empire, at which point he gave it to his kids, one of whom built something called a Pleasure Dome, and the whole thing was gone in less than 150 years. This isn’t to suggest that kids always fuck shit up, but it is to suggest that they get the opportunities that people who may be more deserving do not through nothing that they themselves did or do.

Why should the Gershwin clan be making money off of something that a person some of them may never have known created? Why should the Walt Disney Company have the power to sue the living shit out of me over my sweet Hunger Games-esque remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in which the dwarves all brutally murder each other with the pick axes they carry while singing “Heigh Ho?” Perhaps most importantly, why were my grandparents an electrician and a tombstone engraver, respectively? God dammit, Grampa(s).

This is all easy for me to say, of course. I don’t have kids, or a company (hell, I don’t have a job right now), and I didn’t write the Great American Symphony or the finest novel of 1974. I’m pissed about the capital gains tax, but maybe that’s only because I don’t have any capital gains. Nevertheless, even the most ardent capitalist (I’m talking cum-stained copy of Atlas Shrugged capitalist) must acknowledge the reality that while all men are created equal that all changes once they take their first breath, and it doesn’t matter how hard some try or how epically some fuck up. The ladder is still there, but now it’s like the bridge at the end of Temple of Doom with alligators lurking below and a guy stomping on you and trying to rip your heart out as you climb. I’m not going to go so far as to say that current copyright law can best be expressed as this clip of Mola Ram (the law and the entities that support it) ripping a dude’s (the rest of us) heart out of his chest and holding it while it’s on fire (a metaphor about the creative spark that I haven’t really worked out just yet), but I’ll just leave this here…

Ultimately the only people who really lose with these ridiculous copyright protections are every single one of us, even those who profit from them. There are so many gifted people out there who are losing opportunities to create something special because of them (imagine if Shostakovich had copyright issues that prevented him from using the theme from the William Tell Overture or Gotterdammerung in his Symphony no. 15, for example). There are priceless (or at least awesome) works that will disappear from the face of the earth because of them (some surely already have). There are thousands of communities that will never even get to hear Shostakovich 15 to know what the hell I’m talking about because of them. And for what? Economic prosperity and cultural hegemony?

Fuck that shit.



2 thoughts on “Copyright: The future of America in a nutshell

  1. Many interesting ideas, and I’ll probably weigh in more than once after I process some of this. One thing about DRM: it is going away. The majors stopped using it on CDs a few years ago, and Apple has ceased to use it on music files. I actually don’t see DRM as a huge issue, except as an example of how record companies failed to perceive the changing landscape properly.

    More troubling to me is the way that the Disney and Gershwin interests keep pushing the copyright duration into ever-longer territories. This has truly destructive implications. And those people have outsized influence with folks who write legislation. In Europe, EMI just got the copyright on recordings extended, just before their first Beatles album would have hit public domain. This has had a direct impact on wonderful labels like Pristine Classical, who do fantastic restorations of historical recordings, and who have had to withdraw releases due to this action.

    Fun fact: I am the proud owner of the Dover editions of Shostakovich Symphonies 1 & 5 and Symphonies 9 & 10, which were available for a very brief window, during time which they had arrived at public domain but prior to the modification of the GATT treaty in 1994, which sent them back into the province of Sikorsky (the publisher, not the helicopter) and outrageously high prices.

  2. Oh, and also: nice new look for the blog, though my first arrival here was a bit disorienting, as I wasn’t sure where the hell I’d landed for a minute or two… I get the gramophone and disc images on the banner at the top, but what the hell is the star all about?

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