Monday, July 24, 2006

Steely Dan: America's first men of the borrowed couch?

To what extent does an artist/writer/musician 'own' the characters they create once they've released their artwork/book/song into the public sphere?

70s studio band Steely Dan have written an open letter to actor Owen Wilson, via his brother Luke, essentially accusing the film he's starring in "You, Me and Dupree," of appropriating the character they created in their Grammy winning song "Cousin Dupree". They complain that they have not crediting them (or as seems more important in their letter, compensating them financially) in any way.

As Salon's Audiofile blog explains: "Both the song and film feature a moocher named Dupree living on a borrowed couch and getting up to no good, or as Becker and Fagen put it in their letter: "They, like, took our character, this real dog sleeping on the couch and all and put him in the middle of some hokey 'Down and Out in Beverly Hills' ripoff story and then, when it came time to change the character's name or whatever so people wouldn't know what a rip the whole thing was, THEY DIDN'T EVEN BOTHER TO THINK UP A NEW FUCKING NAME FOR THE GUY!"

It's a pretty funny letter but besides their, like, obviously ripping off the speech patterns of the youth of the nation and, like, not apologising for putting out crappy songs like "Rickey Don't Lose That Number" or other indulgent over-produced 70s numbers (watch the jaws drop when you play them Turn That Heartbeat Over Again) do they really believe that there was something terribly original about a a mooch on a borrowed couch? If their song had any resonance in the first place, it was because they captured something familiar, not really that they invented something new. The film in question certainly seems like a genre flick and that it pays open hommage to the name of the character in their song inserts that filmmaker's script into the artistic continuum of 70s couch moochers (and thankfully leaves out the whole kissing cousin part of the Steely Dan song story.) It's called clever writing.

But what Steely Dan actually seem worried about is money. They're making an intellectual property grab, an incresingly common occurence, and acting hard done by at the same time. However even under US copyright law, characters are only protected if they are significantly original and not stock characters-not sure that Dupree really qualifies.

Why they're targeting the actor and trying to shame him is another interesting development and can be seen as part of the ongoing attempt to change the public's mind about what constitutes ownership and fair use. (A PR campaign so they look like good guys instead of whining rich guys a la Metallica and Napster?) Indeed, do copyright holders even think of their work as going public anymore or has it become all about private market transactions?

Here's Ivan Hoffman, an American lawyer's take on copyright and trademark of characters.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Woody Guthrie on copyright

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

American Copyright law in verse

An amusing (if nerdy, in the best way possible) rendering of US copyright law into verse at Yehuda

iThenticate, Ann Coulter and intellectual property grabs

A while ago, I noted the existence of iParadigm, a company in the US who had gone into the business of finding instances of Plagarism in students work. I was also fascinated by their iThenticate, a similar service that looked for what could be deemed was the unliscensed use of material protected under copyright in other media. I was intrigued by this company because their entire business model was contingent on the ability to make and use copies of freely available material as well as licensed material. But more than an amusing irony, I also wondered if such a system could be used by companies with the money to use the service to make sweeping claims for intellectual property. It could prove to be a tangled web, afterall.

Here is an Editor & Publisher story that chronicles the accusations of plagarism against Columnist Ann Coulter via this aforementioned service.

Apart from the interesting issues of the potential for money being the only deciding factor in who gets to use and own copies, this whole saga brings up a lot of interesting ideas about originality and it's limits.

Whether or not the accusations against Coulter are true or false, I was thinking about how many popular columnists, musicians etc. are often not the most "original" creators, but instead they are folks who are good at distilling ideas that are bubbling up on the fringes to the mainstream or capturing the mood and ideas of something a large group of people are already thinking or talking about. Conservative columnists and politicians, talk radio etc are all particularly good at this. The mainstream music industry has also proved adept at creating a version of underground music that will sell to a broad audience. The oft cited example in this regard is Madonna, a genius at distilation and making something her own.

But I don't think that the limits of originality are only about commercial culture, a simple case of co-opting the little guy and telling people what they want to hear. I suspect that most of cultural creation is derivative in some sense.

In terms of non-fiction writing, there are only so many ways you can state a fact. When I write reported article, I assemble the facts according to the strictures of a genre and while I may be pleased with some turn of phrase or particularly proud of a quote I managed to get or fact I managed to unearth, I know that there probably won't be a lot of difference between my piece and someone else's who is similarly trained. The originality comes simply from how I link the information together. But what sort of "property" claim can I make on that is a big question and one we're all grappling with now.

While I recorgise that there are people who knowingly attempt to co-opt and commercialise the creative work that other people do, I don't think this also means that non-commercial or idependent cultural creation works outside a sphere of shared knowledge and common ideas. Perhaps the difference will be recognising what we owe to each other rather than trying to stake out our own territory. This may be the spot from which true originality may flow.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Village Voice, Code Warriors Jan 10, 2006

Education Supplement 2006
Code Warriors
Free culture takes flight at NYU

by Carla Blumenkranz
January 10th, 2006 11:32 AM

Steal this look: Inga Chernyak and Fred Benenson
photo: Brian Kennedy

Over a cup of tea on Carmine Street, NYU junior Inga Chernyak explains how to break current copyright law. All it takes, Chernyak explains, is one finger on the Shift key while you put a CD in your computer, disabling corporate-installed software designed to prevent you from copying music. Just downloading a fairly purchased, DRM-protected CD from a laptop to an iPod amounts, in most cases, to a federal misdemeanor. "If I bought a CD that had DRM"—the software that blocks duplication—"I would obviate it," Chernyak says, carefully. "If there are laws I believe are wrong, I will break them." And she's just talking about Shift keys.

In fact, just explaining this maneuver may constitute aiding and abetting. "And for you to publish it!" Chernyak gasps. In response to cyberspace logistics, which create a copy each time a user takes a listen online, music industry corporate interests are bearing down hard on individual users, with a vast array of copyright protections on their side. It's a familiar story, and one that usually places the blame on "piracy," which supposedly robs artists of their due profits. But new ideas about the bounds of "fair use" are slowly shifting the blame to antiquated notions of intellectual property, for making copies a crime. Contrary to popular logic, there's an argument to be made that access to our common culture has never been as restricted as today, when the simple act of circulating a song comes with the threat of a lawsuit.

Chernyak and her friend Fred Benenson, a recent NYU graduate, make this argument at length, eyes widening. For them, the freedom to download music, as well as art in any medium, doesn't just mean sticking it to Sony: It's about maintaining a national tradition of grassroots cultural development. And if artists don't have access to our natural resources—if all digital copies are crimes—then that tradition, Chernyak says, is at risk. She and Benenson are the founders of Free Culture NYU, one chapter of what they predict will be the next great student movement. The man this time is RIAA, and Chernyak and Benenson are gearing up, cautiously, for a revolution.

Fittingly, they cribbed their arguments from the work of copyright lawyers— specifically, a popular 2004 nonfiction book called Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig. In the book, Lessig, a Stanford law professor, argues that piracy as we know it is just the latest development in technology distribution, and that this development makes it worth rethinking how we protect intellectual property. The American public shouldn't let corporations stifle our creative culture, he argues, simply because copyright legislation is working on outdated terms. Lessig says, in retrospect, that he never expected his book to inspire a student movement, but of course he's "thrilled." He had a hint, though, when he first came onto the campus scene in 2003 to help Free Culture's eventual founders, Swarthmore students Nelson Pavlosky and Luke Smith, take on Diebold, a voting-machine manufacturer. (Pavlosky and Smith had posted online some of the company's internal e-mails, and Diebold had responded by invoking copyright protections.) College campuses, Lessig notes, are natural incubators for Free Culture ideology. Today, a national network of chapters hosts websites, wikis, and blogs, as well as conventional meetings and protests. (The first regional Free Culture conference is scheduled for January 13 and 14 at Columbia.)

Despite some similarities, the movement hasn't lent itself easily to free-property ideology on the left, or free trade on the right. (This lack of partisan staging may be why Free Culture takes so much flack, from both sides, for not tackling more "important" problems.) Lessig remembers arriving at Swarthmore and finding "one self-acknowledged socialist," and "one self-acknowledged libertarian"; Chernyak proclaims herself a free-market radical, while Benenson broaches vague objections to American internationalism. What holds the group together is its consumer rights orientation: a broad and well-considered objection to the way copyright restrictions make most listeners and viewers into "passive consumers." Free Culture's mission is to convince students that the law, and not just their downloading habits, ought to work otherwise. "In a sense, we're a copyright reform organization," Chernyak explains. "What we aim to do is give direction to the way copyright reform is going to evolve."

At a recent meeting, Free Culture NYU, a dozen members strong, was exploding with responses to the latest in blogs. (Benenson says, "That in itself is tremendous, to have a weekly forum where you're talking about the cutting edge of copyright.") Then it was on to the group's best prospects for civil disobedience. Benenson, an aspiring digital artist, was advocating for a Free Culture–sponsored film-remixing contest: Tisch students would be presented with a feature film or two and, within a short time frame, encouraged to figure out what they can make of it.

As usual, the problem is copyright. Offer access to studio films too freely, and risk a lawsuit; then again, isn't risk, for these supposed rabble-rousers, just the point? An adult agitator who's been showing up lately—Trina Semorile, a former Ph.D. candidate at NYU's Steinhardt School of Education— keeps trying, clearly, to pull the group back to reality. Instead, what she's exposing is a generational gap. There are things worth being jailed for, she says—"a draft card," for example. It's the rhetoric of 20th-century activism. Benenson and Chernyak, however, are operating on different planes: not as part of a bottom-up, top-down struggle, but as a multi-dimensional network of players. Challenging copyright law isn't "about absolutes," Benenson tells Semorile. It's "about harm reduction": minimizing penalties and maximizing opportunities, for artists and audiences alike. More often than not, they have the same interests; they may even be the same people. And as the youth soccer league saying goes, when everyone plays, everyone wins.

Law clerk fired from job for her views on DRM

Law clerk fired from job for her views on DRM

See Freeculture @ NYU