Thursday, September 06, 2007

One at a time

Yes! Score one for the public domain.

For a sense of what is at stake here, I quote from the opinion:

Each plaintiff in this case relies on artistic works in the public domain for his or her livelihood. Lawrence Golan, for example, performs and teaches works by foreign composers including Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky. Before the CTEA [Sonny Bono's law extending the term of copyright, sometimes also referred to as the "Mickey Mouse Protection Act"], plaintiffs anticipated that certain works would soon outlive copyright protection and enter the public domain. The CTEA delayed this moment by 20 years. Prior to the URAA [the Uraguay Round Agreements Act, another egregious update to copyright law -- which in this case was being used to pull works out of the public domain], each plaintiff utilized or performed works by foreign artists in the public domain, such as Sergei Prokofiev’s renowned “Peter and the Wolf.” Since the passage of the URAA, plaintiffs must pay higher performance fees and sheet music rentals as well as other royalties. In many cases, these costs are prohibitive.

The primary gain here (at least for those who are interested in copyright sanity) was to set up a potential challenge to the URAA. As far as I can tell the CTEA comes out pretty much unscathed, but the URAA must now pass First Amendment scrutiny upon review.

I know there are bigger political issues out there, of course -- I doubt any of the presidential candidates are going to be making stump speeches about copyright any time soon. But I happen to think it's a big fucking deal that there are people trying to stop media conglomerates from executing what James Boyle calls a "second enclosure movement" -- an enclosure, that is, of the "intangible commons of the mind."

Other reasons you should give a shit:

The love of our little Johann Sebastian for music was uncommonly great even at this tender age. In a short time he had fully mastered all the pieces his brother [Joseph Cristoph] had voluntarily given him to learn. But his brother possessed a book of clavier pieces by the most famous masters of the day—Froberger, Kerl, Pachelbel—and this, despite all his pleading and for who knows what reason, was denied him. His zeal to improve himself thereupon gave him the idea of practicing the following innocent deceit. This book was kept in a cabinet whose doors consisted only of grillwork. Now, with his little hands he could reach through the grillwork and roll the book up (for it had only a paper cover); accordingly, he would fetch the book out at night, when everyone had gone to bed and, since he was not even possessed of a light, copy it by moonlight. In six months’ time he had these musical spoils in his own hands. Secretly and with extraordinary eagerness he was trying to put it to use, when his brother, to his great dismay, found out about it, and without mercy took away from him the copy he had made with such pains. We may gain a good idea of our little Sebastian’s sorrow over this loss by imagining a miser whose ship, sailing for Peru, has foundered with its cargo of a hundred thousand thaler. He did not recover the book until after the death of his brother.

As you may have surmised, the subject of that anecdote is one JS Bach (from an obituary, as quoted in Christoph Wolff's bio). Sounds to me like he was engaging in a primitive version of what we would now call P2P. (And Joseph Christoph sounds an awful lot like the RIAA.) Heavens to Mergatroy!

And how 'bout this recollection by Mr. Zappa (the media is different, but the gist is the same):

By the time I was really into high school [… m]y real social life revolved around records and the band I played with. There wasn’t much work for us then. We’d get a job maybe, every two months at a teen hop, but most of the time, I was back in my room listening to records. It was the records, not TV, which I didn’t watch, that brainwashed me. I’d listen to them over and over again. The ones I couldn’t buy, I’d steal, and the ones I couldn’t steal I’d borrow, but I’d get them somehow. I had about six hundred records—45s—at one time, and I swear I knew the title, group and label of every one. We all used to quiz each other.

That's right, folks. Frank Zappa was a filesharer! (Cue the Dragnet theme.)

Of course we artists have to make a living. But if you fence in the commons of the mind, where are tomorrow's artists (or at least the ones who, say, can't afford a CD habit at $15 a pop) going to go to find out what has come before them?

Well, YouTube, of course!

(That bitchen photo of Lessig c/o Ian White, by the way.)


Stefan Kac said...

Not even YouTube will save you if you don't have an able computer and fast enough internet access. Until those things become much more widely available/affordable, there's going to continue to be a lot of offline sharing of music.

Andrew said...

Hi Stefan:

I'm not sure of the latest statistics on the "digital divide", but you're probably right that many folks (Tom Hull, f'r'instance) are still doing things the old fashioned way.

My reference to YouTube was half-joking, though I do marvel at how they have avoided the copyright police so far (not that the corporations haven't been trying). And I can think of no other technology (ironically, this includes audio-only technologies) that offers such a wide range of listening options, on-demand and without any entry fee (aside from the money you expend to maintain a functioning computer).