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April 14, 2012

Erin McKeown on copyright ambivalence

Musician and Berkman Fellow Erin McKeown has written a wonderful post expressing her ambivalence about copyright.

Her heart and her brain are on the side of copyreasonableness, and thus she reacts strongly against the insane copyright totalitarianism that has come to be taken as obvious, normal, and even righteous.

But then this happened: In 2003, she wrote and recorded Slung-Ho with some success.

In 2008, it was used in a commercial shown in the Czech Republic. Last year, a Czech singer issued this song. See it here because Sony, having its sense or irony removed in the operation that removed its heart and common sense, won’t let the video be embedded. Proof:

Let’s stipulate that it’s a rip-off: not a mash-up, not an homage, not an inspired-by. It’s a commercial rip-off intended to make money off the another’s creative work. And the song has done very well commercially.

Erin has mixed feelings, which she expresses honestly. That’s what makes her post so interesting.

And challenging.

I think our current copyright system is insanely inadequate for the new ecology, and that it has the opposite effect that its best-spirited defenders want it to have: the current copyright laws (and mindset) are impeding the greatest cultural flowering in our history, and if those copyright laws are taken to their proposed maximum, they will kill culture dead.

And yet. I write books that are copyrighted. I write them in part to make a living. If you published my book without my permission under your name, I’d be pissed off. If you then sold them at half my publisher’s price on Amazon, my publisher would sue you and I’d happily testify against you. And I wouldn’t feel like a hypocrite. Well, I would (just as Erin feels ambivalent), but I’d remind myself that in this case, that niggling fear of hypocrisy is evidence t hat I’ve fallen into the copyright totalitarians’ trap.

The trap uses the fact that the line between cultural sharing and ripping someone off is blurry. Was George Harrison really ripping off The Chiffon’s in My Sweet Lord? For me, that’s a really blurry line, but ultimately I was sorry that he lost the case, in part because the song was simpler, in part because it was so famous a reference that I thought it was a form of homage, and in part because when in doubt we should allow cultural re-mixing to avoid cultural chilling effects. But the fact that the line is blurry does not mean that all cases are blurry. And Erin’s case and my hypothetical case are to me clear instances where someone is stealing the rewards that should accrue to the creator. I don’t think Erin is being hypocritical in the least: supporting serious copyright reform does not require one to give up all copyright claims. We think otherwise because the copyright totalitarians have succeeded in making us think that the alternative to the current insanity is to have absolutely no protection for creators. But fuzzy lines are still lines. (Well, ok, maybe they’re actually areas, not lines. But that’s neither here nor there.)

If anything, Erin’s willingness to protect her works from an egregious ripoff should make her an even stronger voice in the movement to protect sharing from the current predatory copyright laws.

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