Last summer, we noted that there was an interesting "sideshow" in the patent dispute between Oracle and Google -- a question of whether or not Java's APIs are covered by copyright. That "sideshow" has become the main attraction now that the trial has started and many of the patent claims have been kicked out.
Oracle has been quite public with its argument (pdf), which is mostly based on taking snippets from Google emails that suggest a need to license Java. The favorite of the bunch is this one:
They also point to some snippets of code that do appeared to be copied:
If you just see that side of it, you might be convinced, but the details suggest a much less convincing story. First off, there are serious concerns about whether or not an API even can be covered by copyright. In fact, before Sun was acquired by Oracle, Sun's own CTO had said that "internet specifications are not protectable under copyright," which (you might think) gives Google an implied go ahead to make use of the API. Furthermore, many of the email snippets that Oracle presents are taken out of context -- they show little snippets of big emails and pull from very very different time periods -- ranging from 2005 to 2010, when different factors applied. Oracle also scrubbed a blog from former Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz in which he warmly welcomed Google to the Java family when the company launched Android.
Perhaps more damning: Larry Ellison himself in 2009 at the JavaOne event spoke about Google's Android development and how they were contributing code back to Java. Ellison himself was put on the stand and appeared to contradict his own depositions when it came time to discuss the specifics of the copyright. That can't go over well. Not only that, but he stumbled, and claimed he was "not sure" when asked specific questions:
On cross-examination, Google came out firing and the room got tense quickly. “Do you understand that no one owns the Java programming language?” lead counsel Robert Van Nest asked.
Ellison began a longer answer, but Judge William Alsup interrupted him and said it was a “yes or no” question. Finally Ellison said, “I’m not sure.”
“And anyone can use it without royalty?” Van Nest followed up.
“I’m not sure,” Ellison said again.
Then Van Nest showed a video of Ellison receiving the same question on a deposition video and answering “That’s correct” to both.
Oracle's response, of course, will be that it just meant for developing apps, not for using the API -- but its other statements are a lot less clear on that. Either way, it seems pretty clear that Sun gave an implied open license to these things, so to come back now and insist otherwise is pretty questionable. Furthermore, there still are questions as to whether or not an API can actually be covered by copyright at all.
Separately, Oracle keeps talking about just how much work it is to create APIs, and even points to some Google statements about the difficulty of doing so. That's smoke and mirrors. Difficulty has no bearing on copyright law. It's kind of surprising that Oracle's lawyers would even bring it up, as "sweat of the brow" arguments won't get very far. Hell, even if it biases a jury, it would get rejected on appeal. It seems like Oracle's strategy here is just to confuse the jury and go for guilty by association because they're going to have trouble showing actual guilt.
As for the specific code snippets shown above, those a few lines out of 50,000 or so files. Under copyright there's a defense known as de minimis copying, if you're just found to have copied a very tiny portion of something. It seems like that might apply here as well.
Also, you may have heard stories about the results of this trial potentially being worth billions of dollars or something, but that was before most of the patents got thrown out. The patents left over aren't worth very much at all, and the end result means that if Oracle wins, it'll likely get less than $100 million. That's still a significant sum, but it's a lot less than what Oracle had hoped to get in this lawsuit.
In the end, as it seemed from the beginning, Oracle's case looks pretty weak (and getting weaker).
Erin McKeown, a wonderful musician who has been very involved in some discussions on copyright and internet access -- and who was especially helpful in the fight against SOPA -- recently wrote the following thoughtful, heartfelt piece concerning the emotional roller coaster of having someone copy your work, and how all of this relates to copyright law.
I always knew my song "Slung-lo" was a hit.
It just took longer than I expected.
"Slung-lo" came out on my 2003 album, grand (Nettwerk). It found its way to the Brittany Murphy masterpiece "Uptown Girls" and into episodes of "Roswell", "Gilmore Girls", and "Privileged". It also found its way into a Tesco F&F commercial, which ran in the Czech Republic in the summer of 2008. Though not a hit by any means, it was a remarkably long life for a song that came out in 2003.
And then last year, I received two separate emails through my website pointing me to this video for a song called "Touch The Sun" sung by the Czech artist, Debbi. (editor's note: we tried to embed the official video for this song, but Sony Music refuses to allow an embed on the song).
"Have you seen this?" both emails asked. I hadn't.
From the first moment I heard "Touch The Sun," it was as clear to me as anything that someone had taken the DNA of my song "Slung-lo" and turned it into another song. At this point, my lawyer wants me to make very clear that IN MY OPINION, THIS IS COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT.
I don't want to spend a lot of time technically breaking down the two songs, but I'd like to point out a few things. Among the many substantial similarities between them, check out the lyrical content (weather as metaphor for happiness), the almost exact song structure (solo verse, band verse, double-tracked vocal in the chorus...), and the vocal cadence in unison with the descending instrumental line in the chorus. I could go on.
Debbi's "Touch The Sun" isn't the proverbial "kid in the bedroom with a laptop" who remixes pop culture and makes mash-ups to show how alike we humans really are. No, it turns out the song was written for a commercial scale beer campaign by the giant European alcohol company Metaxa, which itself is a subsidiary of the global beverage conglomerate Remy Cointreau.
And it is a hit. A huge one. Debbi was the runner up on the Czech version of the "Idol" franchise. The song won "Song of the Year" at the Czech version of the Grammys. The original video that was sent to me has almost a million hits. A quick search of YouTube reveals karaoke versions, animations, "how to play versions," and plenty of people in their bedrooms playing the song and singing along. The beer ad with the song aired across the Czech Republic more than 1200 times in September of 2010. That's about 40 times a day.
So, after all this time, "Slung-lo" is finally a hit.
The easy part of this story is that I work with an amazing publishing administrator, Duchamp, who has stepped in to help me. We've retained Czech council who have been in contact with Metaxa, Debbi's record label (Sony!), and the Slovak production house that produced the track. All have denied any infringement, declined to settle, and at this point, court proceedings have started. My lawyers estimate that this could take anywhere from one to five years.
This spring Remy re-launched the ad campaign across all of Europe.
By the way, the writers are Tomas Zubak, Peter Graus, and Maros Kachut. Let's #kony2012 them.
Actually let's not.
Instead, I want to talk about the whole host of emotions this experience has brought up for me, and the way it's forced me to confront and articulate my beliefs about copyright.
After watching the video for the first time, I was certifiably apoplectic. I was physically shaking with anger. How dare they! I wasn't so much angry at Debbi -- who, from what I eventually read, really just sang the damn thing -- as I was at the writers. They had to know what they were doing, I fumed. I mean, the song was just in a commercial there. They had to know about it. How dare they!
And then I felt small. I'm nobody, I thought, so they probably figured they could get away with it. It's not like they ripped off Beyonce. Just small-time me.
And then I felt defeated. I've always wanted to have a hit like "Touch The Sun". And I thought I wrote one in 2003. It was such a great disappointment to me that no one noticed. There will never be enough people to notice me, I thought.
And then, I would find myself dreaming. Maybe I'll get a settlement. Maybe it will be large enough to make all my problems go away. I'll be able to pay for my new record. I'll be able to afford the best marketing and publicity money can buy. And then there will be some left over to buy a house. My life will change!
Finally, I disconnected. I couldn't tell very many people about what was happening, and the feelings were overwhelming me. Ok, I thought, I'll just let the lawyers do their lawyer thing. This is why you pay them. I am powerless. Breathe deep and exhale.
Very early in the process, my lawyers asked me what I wanted to be the goal of my settlement. Did I want 100% of the money made? Did I want a flat fee? How much? Did I want a public apology? Did I want to let it go? Did I just want credit?
These questions became a spiritual exercise. I began to think that how I answered them said something about who I was as a person.
I believe that creativity is an unpredictable, mysterious process. I often have no idea where a song comes from. Other times I am more aware of the hard work. It is not always an easy thing to know where influence ends and mimicry begins. But there is also a way we recognize ourselves in the faces of our children, and a gut instinct that tells me when I am hearing my own musical fingerprint.
I thought for awhile, and decided I would like 50% of all the monies made so far, and 50% on everything moving forward. I didn't need a public apology. I think this is fair, not punitive, and given the current copyright law system and options available to me, a reasonable request.
Now I just have to wait one to five years to see how it turns out.
Recently, I've ended up doing a lot of advocacy and policy work around copyright. This isn't because I am a copyright crusader, for or against, but because the issue gets tied up with so many other things I care about: media access, fair compensation for artists, creating a sustainable music business.
I actually hate to talk about copyright because, once it's brought up, it just seems to take over any conversation. Most of the time I feel like that conversation then becomes counterproductive. People throw around complex legal principles. The jargon resembles a foreign language. Often, the emotions get so heated that a room ends up divided at just the time when we need to work together. I've also noticed that most of the people crowing about copyright aren't individual copyright holders. They're groups of people who make money from the business of policing and administering copyright.
In my advocacy, I want to talk scale. I want to talk relationships and power structures. I want to talk about technology. Copyright is part of this, but it's not the whole enchilada. I've come to think that current copyright law is like an immovable boulder in the middle of a rushing river. It's not likely to change, so I'm going to have to work with it, as it is. And not let it stop other important work.
Yet here I am facing a difficult situation where copyright is the main issue.
I recently watched Kirby Ferguson's "Everything Is A Remix" series and found it really helpful to understand the feelings that came up for me around "Touch The Sun." In part four, Kirby makes the observation that we humans are easily and freely influenced and inspired by the world around us. However, when we feel like something has been taken from us, we get very angry and indignant. Our anger is as natural and essentially human as is our borrowing or being influenced.
Really how I feel about copyright is this: can you please just ask me? I am so easily found. One or two clicks, a badly mangled combination of "erin" and "mck" will get you to me. Let me know what you're doing. Let's talk. Take some time and connect with me. I know this is imperfect. Sometimes in the creative economy, there just isn't time. But how about we try?
I'd also like us all to acknowledge that the current copyright system, the unmovable boulder in the stream, rather than protecting rights holders and acting as a deterrent to infringement, is in its very complications a shelter for those who use others' material without permission and an obstacle to those who would like to legally use or remix content. Whether it is done consciously or unconsciously, nefariously or in communal bliss, given the complicated, arcane process, the myriad hoops to jump through, the length and cost of the process, who can afford to participate?
So Tomas, Peter, and Maros, I won't assume your motives in turning my song "Slung-lo" into "Touch The Sun." Instead, I'll say this: if you asked me, we might have worked something out. When I found you, we might have worked something out. Who knows, maybe we could have advanced the conversation around copyright and made a radical contribution toward a different type of economy. Instead, it will drag on in court. And I will fight it in court as long as I have to. But this could have gone another way. And for that, I am sad.
Erin McKeown is an internationally known musician, writer, and producer, releasing 8 full length albums in the last decade and spending an average of 200 nights a year onstage. She has appeared on Later with Jools Holland, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, NPR, BBC, and has had numerous film, television, and commercial placements. She's even written a song via text message with her friend Rachel Maddow. Lately, she has added mentor and activist to her resume. She is a board member at the Future of Music Coalition and a 2011-12 fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Visit her website www.erinmckeown.com for more info and to join her mailing list.
Special Thanks to Mike King, Andy Sellars, my lawyers, Lawrence Stanley and Vaclav Schovanek, and Erik Gilbert at Duchamp for their help researching and proofing this post.
from the a-picture-is-worth-a-thousand-copyrights dept
For the most part, furniture designs can't be copyrighted. Just like fashion, which thrives without copyright, the furniture industry serves as an excellent example of why intellectual property is not necessary to promote innovation and commercial success. Copying happens in these industries, and while it's sometimes fought on trademark grounds, the prevalence of cheap knockoff products is an unavoidable reality. But cheap knockoffs are exactly that, and they meet the demands of a different market segment, where low price is more important than quality, so the original designers can compete either by focusing on their strength in the high-end market, by entering the lower market with their own cheaper products, or both.
If you didn't watch the video, suffice to say the two knockoffs snap like twigs, while the original withstands the same punishment without any signs of damage. Fritz Hansen has rightly recognized what it offers that others don't, and has found a high-impact way of demonstrating this advantage. Naturally some people won't care: they will choose affordability over durability. But those people were probably never going to buy a $500 chair anyway, whether or not cheap alternatives for that specific design are available. Meanwhile, customers who value and can afford top-quality merchandise see a clear demonstration of what they're getting for their money, and one that reflects well not just on the Series 7 but on Fritz Hansen's entire line.
It's extremely rare, in any industry, for one creator to copy another without adding or changing something—a lower price point, better marketing, a better distribution model, a valuable curation service. This is how copying expands markets: originators and copiers must both focus the things that make them stand out, which means finding ways to make a product appeal to new and different people. Strong intellectual property protections exist to shut down such copying, but as industries like furniture and fashion demonstrate, this is unnecessary and potentially quite detrimental. Beating your competitors in court only proves that you were first—obliterating their products on YouTube proves that you're better.
I do feel there are a couple of points that she could have made better. Firstly, she doesn't fully acknowledge the value of transformative works, although from her slideshow of examples it is apparent that she understands that value. Secondly, when she talks about her true scarce value—being the only genuine source of her artwork, which is an important thing for artists to recognize—I wish she had also noted that, just like every other artist in history, her work also draws on what came before it. Despite these small quibbles, it is a succinct and sincere statement from a real artist about why being copied is good, and why freaking out about it means taking an incredibly pessimistic view of things.
Folks who hang out on HackerNews may have seen an interesting little debate flare up recently in a couple of threads. It started when a guy named Dustin Curtis announced a new simple blogging tool which he called Svbtle. He originally designed it for himself, then decided to make it into a wider offering, but is only letting "vetted" bloggers use it, rather than opening it up. This rubbed some folks the wrong way, and another guy, Nate Weinert, decided to build his own open source version that looks similar and has the same basic functionality, and released it to the world under the name Obtvse.
Then the debate raged in the two HN threads over the basic ethics of the decisions by both individuals -- Dustin for locking up his system and Nathan for copying Dustin's idea. It won't surprise many where I come down on this. History has shown that copying often leads to useful innovation and can help expand a market. I find arguments to the contrary somewhat frustrating, because they seem to argue that there's some sort of moral right in an idea -- something that just doesn't make that much sense to me. If others can do more with your idea, why should we stop them? Now, some argue that Nate didn't do more with the idea, but I disagree. He made it open and usable -- by definition doing more with it. Furthermore, in doing that, he made it much easier for others to build on it as well.
But, really, the reason I'm writing this post is a fascinating must-read comment by a guy named Frank Chimero, responding to a blog post by Daniel Howells about this whole back and forth. The comment is a really excellent and succinct explanation of how creativity works and the fact that once you've created something and released it to the world, you've lost control over it -- and pining over that lost control is a fool's errand:
I think once you publish something, you lose control of it. At worst, you inspire mockery and parody. At best, you become material for future work, because what you’ve made is successful, interesting, or relevant. Usually, it is both.
All work produces spill-over repercussions that usually go against the will of the work’s creator. The creator wishes to retain authorship and control the work, while those in the culture wish to use, transform, and remix it. If the work is truly successful, it will defy authorship and turn into a shared experience for everyone. Those works are the hardest to control, because they diffuse, and spread wide by permeating into the air. The become a shorthand for those who make or enjoy similar work, becoming a shared vocabulary.
The situation requires things from both those who create the work, and those who wish to use it.
For the initial creator, they must resign most control upon publication, especially on the internet. Their work will be used to say and do things they don’t intend. Ideas, in truth, go further when others carry them, and this usually means they will go in directions the original author did not intend or imagine. For instance, I’ve had a quote of mine (“People ignore design that ignores people.”) taken out of context and used to justify two completely contradictory design methods. So it goes.
For those that use the things made by others, they should credit where possible, and have their work be transformative in some way. They can carry the ideas of others, but they must to take it further or a new direction. Then, they are obliged share alike. To not do both is to go against the goodwill initiated by the work’s creator.
And for both, we should recognize that all creative processes use materials from those who came before us, and respect the meaningful influence of others. We’re part of a long line of people who make things. It is a privilege to get to use the work of others in our own.
So many excellent points in such a short comment. In fact, economic studies have actually shown, in fairly great detail, that it's exactly these kinds of "spillovers" that lead to economic growth (in fact, they were regularly called spillovers, until the economic language finally clarified a bit further). The fact that you can build on ideas is a natural resource that only expands. It's not limited by scarcity, like many natural resources. It's the nature of an idea to be infinitely copyable at no cost that acts as a resource multiplier that leads to economic growth. That's what's so powerful about it.
It's natural that the originator may get upset about how some of this works out, but contrary to the claims of some, if someone does something with your work, it doesn't do anything to the original. It just expands the overall market. You lose control, but that's not bad. The things that you did are based on the fact that others lost control of things as well.
Oh, and for a bit of irony, I only found this quote because Dustin Curtis highlighted it on his own (Svbtle) blog. Yes, the guy who had his work copied chose to highlight this particular comment... and add "great artists steal" to the end. Seems that he recognizes how all this works and perhaps isn't too upset about how things went down.
We recently covered the indy developer Nimblebit and their friendly-but-snarky response to Zynga copying the mechanics of one of their games. As I argued in the comments to that post, I think people sometimes fail to recognize that copiers do add something of their own—at least, the successful copiers do. Nevertheless, there is a lot of copying in the game industry, and it can lead to a great deal of ire in the community. As Nimblebit demonstrated, there are ways to approach the problem that don't involve immediately going legal.
It's nice to see more developers acknowledging this. At the Game Developers Conference, Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijam of Vlambeer said they are getting tired of the same old debates about copying, and want to move the discussion forward. Their suggestion is to worry less about patents and ownership rights, and more about the actual impact of copying—and then address it by being more open, not less:
The pair acknowledged that protecting game designs with patents might actually damage innovation, but argued that this sort of legal protection is separate from the issue of whether game cloning is helpful or harmful to the industry. And make no mistake, clones are hurting the industry, Nijam said, both by diverting skilled developers towards work on soulless copies and demotivating skilled developers who put a lot of effort into truly original games.
What's worse, a preponderance of low-quality clones is training consumers to expect a lack of originality in the industry, Nijam said, a loss of "gaming literacy" that drags the whole industry down. "Players will get all those bad games and stop recognizing actual good games," he said. "If you only eat bad hamburgers, you're not going to recognize a good hamburger."
The natural reaction to this kind of rampant cloning among many developers might be to hold their cards close to the vest, keeping a new idea totally secret until dropping it on an unsuspecting public. But Ismail said the solution to the cloning problem is actually the opposite—educating gamers by developing games out in the open and showing them the real work that goes into an original design. Detailed development blogs, documentaries like Indie Game: The Movie, and websites that dig deep into game design process all help improve gaming literacy among the public and build a foundation for an audience that values original games.
I can only hope other developers at the conference heed his call. The simple fact in any creative industry is that if someone can beat you by copying your work wholesale, then either they are doing something you're not, or you are failing to connect with your audience. Perhaps, as Ismail argues, this can even become a broader cultural problem that needs to be addressed by the industry as a whole—and that's a good challenge to take on. After all, what's more productive? A bunch of developers suing each other without always distinguishing between genuine bad-actors and actual innovative copying? Or a bunch of developers working together to enhance the industry as a whole, better connecting with fans and letting originality emerge organically? The answer, I hope, is easy.
Every time you think we're done seeing totally ridiculous arguments about file sharing, the old really silly ones pop back up. Musician Logan Lynn has written a pretty silly rant on Huffington Post entitled Guess What? Stealing Is Still Wrong. And, indeed, it is. But nowhere in the article does he actually discuss stealing. He discusses infringement. In silly black and white terms that assumes that every single download is absolutely a lost sale, that no one who downloads ever gives him any money and that his biggest fans are criminals. Crazy stuff.
The music industry has been ravaged by the digital age, the primary culprit being illegal file sharing on websites with practically zero regulation. The past two decades have been something of a Wild West on ye olde Interwebs. No rules, no accountability. By the time the music industry reacted to what was happening, it was too late.
Almost nothing in this paragraph is true. It's a nice fiction that the RIAA/MPAA have been telling the world, but it's simply wrong. The music industry? Growing. Zero regulation? Try 15 anti-piracy laws passed in the last 30 years. No accountability? Should I list out the tens of thousands of lawsuits that copyright holders have filed against those who were file sharing? If you can't get the basics right, it's kinda difficult to take your complaints seriously.
While performing at and attending the CMJ music conference in New York City in fall 2009, I learned that at that time, 91 percent of all new music was downloaded illegally over the Internet instead of purchased. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Record stores are closing, music rags are shutting down, and the glory days of rock and roll are over...
Actually the popular stat at the time was 95%, and it was bogus. And, there's a lot of evidence that the number has actually been dropping, not rising. Record stores closed because they sold CDs which are increasingly obsolete. Music rags are shutting down because music blogs are running rings around them online. The glory days of rock and roll were never quite as glorious as you think...
which I actually don't give even half a shit about. In fact, I'm glad the music industry got destroyed. It was fucked-up anyway, so who cares? Poor (filthy rich) record executives making hundreds of millions of dollars on the backs of artists. Boo-hoo. I'm crying for you. Really. I am.
It sure seems like you're complaining.
What pisses me off is having over 91 percent of my personal intellectual property stolen, often before it even has the chance to be finished and released to the world. As a professional musician, a lot of time, hard work, and money goes into making a record. As an independent musician, that money comes directly out of my own pocket. Being a starving artist honestly isn't all it's cracked up to be anymore, people, and getting ripped-off has always sucked.
You didn't have 91% of your intellectual property "stolen." First of all, the number -- whatever it is -- was a general number across the entire global market. That doesn't mean it's the same for all artists. This is basic stats. Second, if tons of people are downloading your works it's because they like your music and that's a good thing and then there are all sorts of ways to get paid.
Even when I was on a major label, I got totally screwed because so much money was put into the recording, printing, PR, and distribution side that trying to recoup from consumer sales based on that 9 percent of people obtaining the album legally was almost impossible. Everyone had the record months before it came out anyway, because of file sharing. The week before it was released, one site that posted download counts on files reported over 18,000 illegal downloads of my record before my lawyer had them take the file down. That alone comes out to $180,000 -- for my songs -- of which I saw $0. My record deal was a 90/10 split at the time, but guess what 90 percent of $0 is? You guessed it! Still $0.
First of all, the "numbers" posted on those sites are usually made up, not real. Second, assuming that every one of those 18,000 people would have paid $10 for the album is simply delusional. Some of them might have. Others might have downloaded first and then decided to buy later. Others might have downloaded, and then told 20 of their closest friends how awesome you are and told them to go buy your album. Or go see a live show. The assumption that this is $180,000 gone is simple fantasy.
Think of it this way: if you were a painter and were putting the finishing touches on your pieces for a show, wouldn't you be upset if someone broke into your studio, took your unfinished paintings, and hung them in their public gallery without your permission? Let's say you had some finished work hanging for sale in your own space, but every time someone saw something they liked, they removed it from the wall, tucked it under their arm, and left without paying for it? What if 100 people came to your show opening and 91 of them decided to steal one of your paintings off the wall? Then what? Paint faster to keep up with the demand?
Think of this way: if you were a painter and were putting the finishing touches on your pieces for a show, wouldn't it be awesome to find out that thousands of people were so eager to find out about your works that they were clamoring for copies online? Let's say you had some finished work hanging for sale in your own space, but every time someone saw something they liked, they made a copy and told a bunch of others about it -- and then paid you to do more paintings? What if 100 people came to your show and 91 of them liked you so much they decided to make copies and find out more about you and how they could support your future work? Then what? Things would be pretty good, right?
I know this is the part where all the kids and hipsters start to roll their eyes and say things like, "You just don't get it, grandpa," and, "It's freedom of speech," but I don't actually believe that stealing my intellectual property is your constitutional right. Sorry, everybody.
If you're going to mock those who are arguing against you, it helps to actually understand their argument. The free speech argument is not that infringement is free speech. It's that ridiculous laws like SOPA create massive collateral damage that do serious harm to free speech.
Next time you hear a song you like, I encourage you to purchase it instead of stealing it. Supporting independent musicians just feels better than robbing us of our livelihood. I promise! Hell, you could even go to your favorite local record store, buy a CD, and look at the cover art for hours. You know, for old times' sake.
Next time you have a fan come to your site, I encourage you to offer them proactive reasons to buy instead of just demanding that they hand over cash. Treating your fans as fans and giving them lots of ways to support you just feels better than treating your biggest fans as criminals. I promise! Hell, you could even offer up cool products and bundles, or try a name your own price offering, or any number of other cool new ideas. You know, for modern times' sake.
We always hear stories about how copyright has to be protected to "protect the artists," and yet time and time again we learn that some of the biggest name artists will often copy directly from each other without credit or payment. It's the way music is made. In James Boyle's excellent book, The Public Domain, there's a really fantastic chapter giving plenty of examples of this in practice. However, Rob Hyndman recently pointed us to another such example, found via Wikipedia, but backed up via its sources of course. The discussion? It's about where Michael Jackson's famous song Billie Jean came from. Turns out, Jackson himself admitted to copying the bass line directly from a Hall and Oates song:
According to Daryl Hall, when Jackson was recording “We Are the World,” Jackson approached him and admitted to lifting the bass line for "Billie Jean" from a Hall and Oates song (apparently referring to Hall’s "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)" from the 1981 album Private Eyes): "Michael Jackson once said directly to me that he hoped I didn't mind that he copped that groove."
Of course, the really amusing part? Hall responded to Jackson... by telling him he had done the same thing himself to get that bassline in the first place! "It's something we all do," Hall later explained.
Indeed. And yet, under today's laws, it's still considered infringement, and we still hear people looking down on "remixing" or people who create works in this manner, by building on the works of others. And yet, this is one of the most successful pop songs of all time. And the bass was a big part of that. Elsewhere in the Wikipedia article, there's a discussion of how the producer of the song, Quincy Jones, hated the song, and specifically the bass line. Yet Jackson insisted that the bass line was the key to the song, and the two of them fought over it until Jackson won. And the bassline was completely copied.
It's stories like this that make us wonder how people can say with a straight face that copying something can't help to create something new.
In the past, we've written a few times about how Access Copyright, the Canadian collection society that gets revenue from universities for professors photocopying copyrighted works, and how it's been trying to increase rates by 1,300% by claiming that simply "posting a link" counted the same as making a copy. As we noted back in 2010, that's a crazy claim. Lots of universities decided to drop out of Access Copyright's system to avoid such crazy fees. However, not everyone decided to support this move. As a ton of you sent over, the universities of Western Ontario and Toronto have both signed agreements along those lines:
The agreement reached last month with the licensing agency includes provisions defining e-mailing hyperlinks as equivalent to photocopying a document, an annual $27.50 fee for every full-time equivalent student and surveillance of academic staff email.
As the article notes, it seems incredibly premature for anyone to sign such an agreement, since the Supreme Court is expected to weigh in shortly about Access Copyright's mandate and limits, so there's simply no reason to rush into such a ridiculous deal. But, even worse is the message this kind of agreement sends to students. Accepting the idea that emailing hyperlinks is like making a photocopy is a ridiculous message that only serves to make more young people mock copyright as being a law that makes no sense at all.
We've written multiple times about Kirby Ferguson's excellent Everything is a Remix project that has produced three videos highlighting the problems and history of intellectual property and how copying and derivative works are a core element of culture and invention. He's now released the fourth and final installment in the series, and it's a great summary look at the general problems with intellectual property law today.
The key theme is that the theory (treating ideas, inventions, content, etc. as a form of "property" -- in the minds of many copyright and patent system supporters) simply doesn't match up with reality (where almost everything is a derivative work of some sort). What the video does nicely is highlight the hypocrisy of it all. As he notes brilliantly, when we copy (and everyone does copy), we justify it. When others copy, however, suddenly we attack them and vilify them. A perfect recent example of this, by the way, was former NYT executive editor Bill Keller's bizarre defense of the NYT copying and posting a work covered by someone else's copyright, just days after his own column came out in support of greater legal enforcement of copyrights.
As he notes, this is psychologically understandable. It's all about "loss aversion." People feel a sense that they "own" something which they really do not -- and that's often boosted by the concepts of intellectual property that really spread the idea that you can, in fact, own an idea (and, yes, technically neither copyright nor patents apply directly to "ideas," but that's a nuance that most people fail to grasp when they see how content and inventions are considered "owned" under the laws of today).
The video then talks about the continued expansion of copyright laws, and the more nefarious effort to continue to ratchet things up through trade agreements like ACTA and TPP. But he also points out that this is somewhat ironic, since in its early years, the US refused to sign similar trade agreements, and was a "pirate nation" that ignored copyrights from around the globe.
The video doesn't just cover copyrights, but digs into patents as well -- with specific attention paid to broad software patents that do little to contribute any knowledge to the world, but instead take broad concepts and seek to lock them up for the purpose of suing and trying to extract settlements from those actually creating and innovating.
From there he breaks out the original purpose of both copyrights and patents under the US system. In both cases, they were about benefiting the public: to encourage learning or to promote the progress of "useful" arts (inventions). But when the laws fail to do that, then we should see the system as broken and seek to remedy it.
All in all, Ferguson's series is a great introduction to many of the issues we cover around here. I don't fully agree with everything in all of the videos -- and the latest one has a slight undertone suggesting that capitalism and markets in and of themselves are bad (which I think is conflating a few different issues). But overall the videos are fantastic -- and in terms of production quality, it seems like each one in the series is better than the previous one. He keeps maturing as a video maker, which is cool to see. Ferguson is now moving on to a new project, called This is Not a Conspiracy Theory, for which he's raising funds on Kickstarter, so check it out.