Recently by Tim Quirk

Doug has asked us to nominate the "biggest policy threat or potentially transformative initiative currently facing our culture," and has kicked things off with the specter of "endless assignable copyright."

Wow. I tend to be pretty pessimistic when it comes to government and the arts, and I agree that our habit of continually lengthening the term of a copyright (the original term was just 14 years back in 1790, and now it's life of author plus another 70 freaking years) is a dangerous one that has the effect of making copyright owners spend more energy maximizing the value of existing works while inhibiting the creation of new ones (dont even get me started on all the art that has NOT been created since the Biz Markie ruling quashed the explosion of creative sampling that had been flourishing in the late-80s/early-90s).

But am I silly for thinking it's impossible to make the term endless, as Doug fears? I mean, it's right there in our Constitution that copyrights can only be secured for "limited Times." I sympathize with the argument that repeated extensions might as well mean copyrights are perpetual, but I also recognize it's just that -- an argument, not a fact, and one the Supreme Court unfortunately rejected.

So, while I concur that overlong copyrights are a big problem and well worth fighting, I don't know that they'd win my vote for Biggest Threat Ever, and even if they did I'd hesitate to market the problem as "endless copyright."

Here's why: I'm accustomed to the most impassioned advocates for a more equitable balance between public and private interests getting dismissed as naive cranks -- it happens to me weekly, and I only do this stuff in my spare time. And I don't want to give the other side any ammunition by overstating our concerns.

I felt a similar twinge when reading the part of Brian Newman's otherwise excellent post that warned how the corporations in control of our culture today are "vicious, blood-sucking beasts hell-bent on keeping their antiquated business models at any cost to society." I agree with the hell-bent part, and I endorse the passion, but that kind of verbiage strikes me as an excellent way to get ignored by the very people you want to influence.

The people who control our culture are not vicious, blood-sucking beasts. They are rational, if hyper-competitive, economic actors who will buy any advantage they can because they believe that's their job.

I want to change their minds, and if we can't do that I want to outbid or outmaneuver them for those advantages. And doing so successfully means being clear-headed about their motivations, and persuasive in our arguments.

(A quick addendum: if you Google "Tim Quirk" and the phrase "fucking stupid," you will find just one of many examples of me seeming to ignore my own advice, here. I mention this so it's clear I'm speaking from experience of trying it the other way, not from some school-marmish squeamishness.)
July 23, 2010 7:35 AM | | Comments (3) |
I want to keep the thread about blurring the lines between artist and audience going, partly because I am an unreconstructed indie rocker and that once meant you couldn't tell the difference between the two except for the 30 to 90 minutes the artists were onstage (and, frankly, sometimes not even then), but also because I have been posting from a cruise ship somewhere in the Atlantic, and something has been happening each night on this ship that feels like a metaphor for what we're discussing.

There's a theater on board where passengers are variously entertained by dancers, musicians, singers, comedians, and magicians (I will refrain from commenting on the quality of these performers, beyond saying that some of them would make excellent indie rockers). Before each performance, after warning the audience that they should not cross the stage because all the shows use live pyrotechnics, the emcee informs them that no photography or videotaping is allowed, "due to international copyright law."

What's funny about this announcement is that, even as the emcee says it, passengers gleefully snap photographs of him, and the flashbulbs continue to go off throughout each show, with zero consequences at all.

I'm not sure where someone would hang a picture of six dancers wearing costumes inspired by the movie All That Jazz doing choreography we all saw on a recent episode of Glee which itself borrowed liberally from an old Paula Abdul video while a karaoke recording of an old Journey song plays, but that's not the  only thing the whole phenomenon left me wondering.

I wondered exactly which "international copyright law" was being invoked. I wondered which artists in that Escher-like experience were supposedly being protected, and how their rights might be infringed by a snapshot of the proceedings. I wondered what it meant that much of the audience clicked away regardless, and that whoever was in charge felt it was important to say, "Don't," but not important enough to do anything more.

As I said, the whole thing felt very metaphorical: copyright being invoked vaguely, the "artist" undefined beyond being some kind of dividing line between who was performing and who was watching, and everyone pretty much doing what they felt like, regardless.
July 22, 2010 3:56 AM | | Comments (1) |
Because it's long, and most of the good news is hidden after the jump, I just want to encourage everybody to read Nathaniel James' post, which details three other arenas (besides policy) where creators can and are expanding their rights.

Go read the whole thing. I'll wait...

OK, done? Nathaniel referenced Lawrence Lessig's model of four arenas or "modes" within which a system can be affected:

    * Architecture: the "code" or design of the system.
    * Markets: the interplay of choice and competition within a system.
    * Norms: how people act upon and within the system.
    * Law: what the government wants the system to do.

While the fourth one, Law, is mostly what we're discussing this week, we should indeed spend some time addressing how Law is reacting to or otherwise affecting those other three.

Nathaniel listed some positive examples of work being done in each of the other three modes. I'm interested to hear more, and will toss in one of my own under Markets.

In the music realm, an entire industry seems to be evolving before our eyes around direct-to-fan marketing, and I think that's profoundly positive news for artists. Topspin is one of many innovative companies in this space (disclosure: I'm a Topspin client; I mention them because I use and love them): they provide a platform and a suite of tools that enable musicians to distribute their art directly to their audience, and manage the relationship with each and every one of those fans forever afterward.

The important thing about direct-to-fan is that it's supplemental: it's not a replacement for more traditional means of reaching an audience or the businesses that already do so (labels, radio stations, online music stores ad subscription services, etc.). It's a market response to a phenomenon that has always existed but can only now be fully exploited: your music is worth different amounts to different people. All kinds of musicians have been experimenting with what that means, from Jill Sobule inviting super fans to join her in the studio to Josh Freese auctioning off playdates involving hallucinogens, to countless bands raising the money to record their next work from fans willing to pay for it before it exists.

All of them give artists greater ability than ever before to fund their own work, and therefore retain control of their copyrights.

I very much look forward to the day when "creator" and "copyright owner" actually are the synonyms too many mistake them for today. 
July 21, 2010 7:40 AM | | Comments (2) |
OK, now I'm getting depressed. I had always assumed this ridiculous idea that artists are delicate otherworldly creatures who can't and shouldn't concern themselves with prosaic business or policy matters was being fed to them (along with other helpful notions, such as being a drunk or an addict is all part of being creative) by malicious middlemen and mendacious media.

But now I've read Vickie's insightful analysis of how this dynamic is perpetuated by art schools and universities, and Bill's observation that "things like intellectual property, media policy, unions, performance rights, and so on not show up in art schools or music conservatories, they have precious little traction in arts management programs." And that all mirrors my experience in the business world: I spent the last 11 years working in online music, and every year I found myself giving a copyright 101 course to some new executive, explaining the difference between a composition and a sound recording, who controlled the rights for each, which ones were available at statutory rates and which ones had to be licensed directly from the owner, how one went about tracking down said owners, and the various consequences of failing to identify those owners correctly.

This stuff is neither easy nor intuitive, and most people (even very intelligent and successful businessmen and women) tend to throw up their arms in exasperation somewhere around the point where you highlight the difference between a mechanical royalty and a performance one and why the Harry Fox Agency collects the former and performance rights organizations such as ASCAP and BMI collect the latter.

So maybe I should forgive artists for running in terror. But I can't let educational institutions off the hook. Someone has to teach the mechanics of all this, and it would help if that someone also devoted significant energy to analyzing why it gets so complicated so quickly: it turns out the tortuous copyright clearance process serves as a decent history of which institutions had the most political power whenever a new use for creative works emerged.

And it also serves as an ongoing saga of what happens when creators aren't involved in policy-making.
July 20, 2010 5:38 AM | | Comments (0) |
David asks, "What can we do to galvanize our sector of the citizenry," and while I think the specific answers will vary by sector, one answer they should all have in common is pointing out what happens when other entities claim to be speaking on behalf of artists while the artists aren't paying attention.

Because one way I've found to galvanize people is to show them what's being touted as "the creators' position" by people who aren't, in fact, creators.

That often wakes people up.
July 19, 2010 11:52 AM | | Comments (0) |
I actually learned the answer to Alex's question, "How do we make activism an appealing drug artists want to take?" at an artist activism retreat a couple months ago.

Erin Potts from Air Traffic Control highlighted some research that indicated music affects the same part of the brain that governs optimism, and that music-related activism therefore helped convince participants their efforts could really make an impact.

Don't worry, I'm not suggesting that we get artists engaged in policy conversations by turning them into sing-alongs. But I do think it's a mistake to consider policy and process as something separate from/different than the act of creating. They're intertwined, and need to be addressed that way. That's why, though I recognize the phenomenon Lynne calls "the Jagger Effect,"hearing it phrased as something intrinsic to the artistic personality always makes me a little crazy. I think the effect has more to do with romantic notions of what being an artist is supposed to mean than it does with any effective way of actually being an artist.

Over 20 years in the music business has convinced me that the idea of creative geniuses tending only to their art while others figure out how to find it an audience, and then turn that audience into money, isn't just a myth, it's a pernicious lie. Moreover, it's a lie that folks on the business side have a vested interest in perpetuating.

It's nice to be told that you're a genius and needn't worry about the business side of things, or who's doing what with your website, or what's being decided in DC about your particular field. But when I hear artists repeat that, I tell them to stop being naive.

So, um, I guess my answer to Alex is two-fold: sing, and be a pest.
July 19, 2010 6:27 AM | | Comments (0) |


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