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[berkman] Larisa Mann on copyright colonialism

Larisa Mann (AKA DJ Ripley), a doctoral candidate at Berkeley Law, is giving a Berkman talk titled “Decolonizing copyright: Jamaican street dances and globally networked technology.” [I had to talk a phone call during the first ten minutes :( ]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Her question: Does globally networked technology and/or copyright law reinforce the coloniality of power? She explicitly takes coloniality as undesirable because it unequally distributes power. She is looking particularly at Jamaica. Copyright law is colonial in Jamaica, she says, since it was written by the British for their colony.

There are culturally specific assumptions at work in copyright law: that there are discrete, identifiable, individual authors who are separate from consumers, it’s about originality, and works are “fixed” (discrete and identifiable).

An example. A riddim is the instrumental part of a song, Larissa says. Riddims circulate independently from vocals in Jamaica. They’ve been recorded since the 1950s, if not before. Many songs use the same riddim. One site has cataloged 279 songs that use the Stalag 17 riddim, for example.

DJs will play series of songs using the same riddim, which many dancers like since they know what’s coming. Riddims become “shared cultural knowledge,” she says. People know them by name. They recognize the samples in songs. Riddims create shared knowledge and enable engagement with the current musical environment.

But riddims contradict copyright: shared, repeated, unoriginal. “Technology can bring copyright law considerations into people’s daily practices.” Law gets embedded into tech. But this can disrupt valuable cultural practices, like riddims.

Dancers have become among the most highly discussed and famous in Jamaica, at least in part due to the availability of video. E.g., videos of the Boasy Tuesday party are online, and you can learn the dances from it. People become famous from these videos.

The good side of network tech is that it eases circulation, you can achieve international fame, and it can increase your local reputation. And in Jamaica, financial and social relationships overlap.

The bad side is that there’s more surveillance, both of daily life and of the circulation of audio/video materials. This can lead to lawsuits that could discourage practices such as sampling or using riddims.

“Exilic spaces” are spaces at the margins of law. That’s where a lot of culture lives, and where there’s a lot of potential for equality.

Q: Has there been any move to change Jamaican copyright law?
A: In 1993, when Jamaica joined the WTO, they rewrote their copyright law to be aligned with the WTO approach. There’s some pushback at WIPO where some Southern countries are trying to get a developing world agenda. Jamaica is not a part of that. And it would be a tremendous problem for Jamaica to withdraw from the WTO.

Q: The sound systems and crews also contribute to the music…

A: Producing CDs to sell the music isn’t an important part of the Jamaican music scene. The sounds and crews were often associated with liquor stores, and made their money that way. It’s still the case that they generally don’t generate money by selling recordings but through events.

Q: If you’re a music producer in Jamaica and would like to have your artist go for the big money, are you pro or con copyright?
A: I’ve spoken with many, and they’re divided. If people want to buy recordings, they tend to buy unlicensed mix CDs. Producers both want a cut and want their artists’ names to be known. (Artists frequently put their producers’ names into their music so others can find the producers.) There’s payola, too; people are desperate to get their music on the radio.

Q: What type of actual enforcement attempts are there against individual Jamaicans,? Also, do artists’ positions about copyright change as they become successful?
A: Sometimes artists’ positions change. They’re sophisticated about knowing when to use the formal systems. Enforcement depends on how much power you have. I can’t find a single Jamaican who’s sued another.

Q: Jamaica has strong class distinctions…
A: The coloniality of power filters all the way through the system. People at the top are more comfortable using the legal system to enforce their will. The upper classes are often uncomfortable with what goes on in exilic spaces and they are often unwilling to invest in the culture of the urban poor.

Q: How does gender play into this, which is a different power dynamic. The previous prime minister was a woman. Are women producers?

A: Women are important force on the dance floor. There are not a lot of women producers. I met two female engineers. There are not as many female vocalists as men. But women are much more employable in Jamaica in other jobs; they have more access to economic stability. So it’s not that the men have the opportunity to achieve global fame and fortune and thus are better off; the men have much more difficulty getting stable jobs.

Q: How do the riddim creators get compensated?

A: Riddims tend to be made once and then re-used, although sometimes they get re-done. People don’t get royalties. If your riddim is hot, you’re a hot producer, which means people hire you.

Q: Are people trying to come up with a more legalistic, more open license for riddims, etc.?
A: Not really. In part that’s because the law is presented as if it were the rational way to do things. It’s presented as the professional way. If you want to make it, you’re told that’s how you ought to transform yourself. If it’s going to change, it should map the way artists actually work.

Q: How do you think Jamaica will change its means of cultural production? Has there been a chilling effect?

A: People’s ability to participate in these networks can be chilled. As channels get successful, they often clamp down. We should be looking to Jamaica for inspiration as we globally think about copyright. The amount of artistic and cultural production in Jamaica is astounding.

Q: Copyright is crazy.
A: Yes. If you post your tribute to a rock guitar solo, as you get better at the solo, the more likely it’ll be taken down. It’s like an accolade.

Q: You said that if a policy is divorced from reality, why have it? Maybe the answer is that they constructed their copyright law in order to get into WPO, without any effort to enforcement.
A: The problem is that the WTO requires compliance and can enforce trade sanctions against you.

Q: Do you think Jamaicans’ attitude toward copyright is different than that of Americans?
A: It’s hard to generalize about Americans about this. Many Jamaicans are very positive about copyright law because it manages what you’ve already made and gets you what is yours, but they often don’t think about the effect it has on culture and creativity. Also, Jamaicans have not had an historical experience of being treated well by global systems, so it’s important to them to own stuff. The question is: What does ownership mean in this context? They have a different idea of what is ownable.

Q: You fundamentally misstate the situation. You say that we don’t have colonialism now. But now we have neo-colonialism.
A: That’s what I intended. I didn’t mean to leave the opposite impression. [She didn’t leave that wrong impression with me – dw]

Q: As a Jamaican, I agree that it’s very much bottom up. And why don’t producers take more ownership? Because the shelflife of these riddims is measure in weeks. By the time you get your paperwork approved, it’ll be over.
A: Since there isn’t ownership of that sort, there’s a tremendous impetus to keep creating.

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