We recently posted what I thought was an interesting essay by musician Erin McKeown on her reaction to seeing someone copy a song of hers, and have that other song become a "hit." We thought it was an interesting and nuanced exploration of some of the challenges of being a musician and thinking about copyright -- from both an emotional and logical perspective -- and thought it would make for an interesting discussion. And, in fact, it did make for an interesting discussion. With well over 100 comments, representing a variety of different viewpoints, there was a pretty deep dive into the myriad responses the piece brought out. Like pretty much any online discussion, some of the comments were more polite than others. But, when viewed on the whole, it struck me that the conversation was much more polite than most online discussions around copyright. In fact, what was interesting was that because the discussion was quite nuanced, most of our usual haters didn't take part. So we didn't have, for example, anyone calling me a slimy lying sociopath or a disgusting human being.
Some of the comments were pointed in their disagreement with Erin, but almost immediately others came in to defend her, and the overall discussion was quite interesting in my mind. And, yet, a bevy of the standard Techdirt critics took to Twitter to claim that Erin's article was proof positive that Techdirt was pure evil, hated artists and was the disgusting underbelly of the internet (a very close paraphrase of actual statements). I'm not going to link to any of these, because I don't mean to call out those people specifically. Similarly, there was a thread on a music site that was entitled "why does Techdirt hate musicians?" I suddenly had people tweeting at me, personally, about how I was somehow destroying music and why did I not want artists to get paid.
I honestly can't figure out why this was the response. First of all, we've regularly been attacked because (we're told) we never, ever post an article where we show sympathy for artists' difficult plight these days. So here was an article, from a musician, explaining her plight -- and we get attacked for that?!? Furthermore, I'm long since past the time when I could read all the comments on the site, but I do read a pretty large number of them, and the amount of hate and vitriol that has come from Techdirt haters (see above, for two very recent examples) is way, way, way, way beyond anything seen in that particular thread.
In fact, the further you read into the comments the more you realize it's a detailed and nuanced discussion on many important issues. People don't agree, but no one's calling each other a slimy lying sociopath or a disgusting human being. Yet, because a few commenters (not even the majority, as far as I can tell) disagree with Erin, all of Techdirt hates musicians? There were a few tweets and statements elsewhere saying that Techdirt hates it when artists make money. Of course, that's ridiculous. We regularly celebrate artists earning money -- sometimes lots of money. What we get nervous amount is when artists start making use of laws in ways that may actually do them more harm than good in the long term, by attacking their fans as if they were criminals, or when they seek to abuse laws that take away fundamental rights of others.
But, really, what was most amazing to me was how quick some of these people were to jump on the entire Techdirt community, because a few comments disagreed with one musician's opinion. They ignored everyone who came to her defense. They ignored the fact that we posted the story in the first place. They ignored all the people on other stories who attack Techdirt supporters in often extremely personal ways (I've been threatened with physical harm as well as seen multiple comments I won't repeat about my family). But most people -- myself included -- see those kinds of comments as part of the price you pay for having an open discussion. Some people are going to disagree and some will use different levels of speech, some more polite than others. To tar and feather everyone on the site because someone on it disagrees with your personal views is to suggest that every community online is a problem.
Is it that difficult to distinguish a nuanced conversations where not everyone agrees with each other... from the "dark underbelly" of the internet?
Multiple people have passed along this fantastic manifesto of modern creativity that was put together by five curators of an exhibition for Les Rencontres Arles Photographie called "From Here On."
One friend noted just how inspiring that graphic alone was, but reading the more detailed manifesto is worthwhile as well. It talks about just how much the internet and digital technologies have changes our lives, and changed the way art and creativity works -- in undoubtedly positive ways. Here's just a snippet of the larger piece:
The growth of the Internet and the proliferation of sites for searching out and/or sharing images online—Flickr, Photobucket, Facebook, Google Images, eBay, to name only the best-known—now mean a plethora of visual resources that was inconceivable as little as ten years ago: a phenomenon comparable to the advent of running water and gas in big cities in the nineteenth century. We all know just how thoroughly those amenities altered people’s way of life in terms of everyday comfort and hygiene—and now, right in our own homes, we have an image-tap that’s refashioning our visual habits just as radically. In the course of art history, periods when image accessibility has been boosted by technological innovation have always been rich in major visual advances: improved photomechanical printing techniques and the subsequent press boom of the 1910s-1920s, for instance, paved the way for photomontage. Similar upheavals in the art field accompanied the rise of engraving as a popular medium in the nineteenth century, the arrival of TV in the 1950s—and the coming of the Internet today.
Across-the-board appropriation on the one hand plus hyper-accessibility of images on the other: a pairing that would prove particularly fertile and stimulating for the art field. Beginning with the first years of the new millennium—Google Images launched in 2001, Google Maps in 2004 and Flickr the same year—artists jumped at the new technologies, and since then more and more of them have been taking advantage of the wealth of opportunities offered by the Internet. Gleefully appropriating their online finds, they edit, adapt, displace, add and subtract. What artists used to look for in nature, in urban flaneries, in leafing through magazines and rummaging in flea markets, they now find on the Internet, that new wellspring of the vernacular and inexhaustible fount of ideas and wonders.
What I love most about this is how inclusive it is, and how much of it is about recognizing and embracing what an amazingly creative time this is for artists. All too often, we hear of artists who decry such things, who complain about the fact that their club doesn't feel as exclusive any more. For artists and an art exhibit to not just embrace, but joyfully celebrate the way creativity works today, while recognizing how these tools mean that anyone and everyone are creating art all the time, is really wonderful to see.
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.
One of the favorite tropes of the anti-piracy crowd is that all this unauthorized sharing is killing culture, pauperizing artists and generally making the world go to hell in a handbasket. The only pieces of evidence adduced in support of that position are the market reports put together for the copyright industries that (a) say the sky is falling and (b) base that analysis on the industries' own unsubstantiated claims.
In fact, as we know, for all of the copyright industries, the Sky is Rising. But that's only half the story, for alongside the traditional distribution channels, there are now entirely new ways in which people can create and share their creations. These have only emerged in the last few years, and so there is a natural tendency to underestimate their importance. But gradually figures are emerging that hint at the extraordinary scale of the creativity they foster.
YouTube's state-of-the-art technologies let rights owners:
Identify user-uploaded videos comprised entirely OR partially of their content and
Choose, in advance, what they want to happen when those videos are found. Make money from them. Get stats on them. Or block them from YouTube altogether.
It's up to you.
How does Content ID work?
Rights holders deliver YouTube reference files (audio-only or video) of content that they own, metadata describing that content, and policies on what they want YouTube to do when we find a match.
We compare videos uploaded to YouTube against those reference files.
Our technology automatically identifies your content and applies your preferred policy: monetise, track or block.
What the use of Google's Content ID means is that the stuff copyright companies care about is already being caught. What's left varies from high-art mashups to how-to manuals to cat videos. But whatever it is, there's lots of it, with millions of hours of new content being uploaded every year.
Listed among the top 10 social networks and blogs in the U.S. by Nielsen in 2011, Wikia sees nearly 50 million global unique visitors per month, has over 339,000 communities (600 new ones added daily), and is witnessing 42% traffic growth year-over-year.
More specifically, gaming and entertainment communities have been Wikia’s bread and butter. The site hosts over 65k game wikis with 2.48M game pages. Elder Scrolls, for example has 8k+ content pages and it would take a month to read them all at 5 minutes per page.
Putting these kind of figures together with the daily output of hundreds of millions of users on Twitter and its Chinese analogs -- to say nothing of the near-billion Facebookers -- and what emerges is a ferment of creativity the likes of which the world has never seen before. So how can this be squared with the repeated claims that piracy is somehow leading to the death of culture?
I think the answer is that in the eyes of many commentators all this activity simply "doesn't count". That is, a video on YouTube is not "real" art, and a Tumblr post is not "real" literature. So when people complain that piracy is "killing" culture, what they are really expressing is their own incomprehension in the face of this new kind of art.
To admit that piracy isn't a problem, because it seems to be leading to more, not less creativity, would be to admit that the huge outpourings of user-generated content are indeed art, some of it even rather good art. And that, rather than any supposed harm from unauthorized sharing of copyright materials, is what many seem to fear. For the copyright industries and cultural commentators it calls into question their ability to make aesthetic judgments -- and hence money -- while for the artists, it questions their privileged position in society, and the special role of their art there.
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.
As we recently noted in our The Sky Is Rising study, all of the evidence shows that we're living in a time of true abundance in terms of the content world. All of the data shows this. It's really incontrovertible. And yet, we keep hearing from certain folks -- often legacy entertainment industry interests -- that somehow the content creation world is at risk. That's pretty difficult to square with reality. In fact, I think it could be argued that if the industry gets its way with some of its legal proposals that would put this amazing age of creativity at much greater risk than anything the industry is complaining about.
It seems that plenty of others are recognizing this as well. Tom sent over a great blog post by Terry Border of Bent Objects, explaining why this is the most creative time in history... and why we shouldn't take that for granted. And, of course, a big reason for such an explosion of creativity is because of the internet, and the ability to not just create, promote and distribute works, but the ability to communicate.
Think about the art of writing for a minute. Think about creative, or biographical, or whatever kind of writing. Before blogging, how many people wrote any more than it took to fill the space of postcard? If it wasn't their profession, I'd say very few. Now, it seems like everyone has had a blog at one time or another. And now "micro-blogging" is in style thanks to Twitter. Not as many words you say? Right, but it's a different skill that people are learning. Very concise wording. Do people want to post boring tweets? Of course not. People spend quite a few minutes of their day trying to write interesting, humorous, or informative Tweets and Facebook updates. Small bits of creativity for sure, but add them up on a weekly basis, and it's quite a bit.
I think of all the craftspersons who have learned from each other on-line. Popular knitting blogs for instance have taken that old past-time of grandma's and made it mainstream. Before Etsy and the like, where would a person sell the scarves and hats that they made besides the occasional craft fair? I mean, a family only needs so many scarves, and then the knitting needles were put away. Communities on the web not only serve as a place to share work and ideas, but that also serve as shops to sell your product worldwide, creating a reason to make more, and to try new, crazy ideas. Kind of incredible.
That's just a small clip from his longer post, which goes into much more detail. It's worth a read, and definitely pay attention to his conclusion:
My contention is that these days we live in right now will be looked back on with longing, especially with various governments trying to push through laws to control the internet. If that happens, these will be the good old days, so don't take them for granted. Look around and enjoy. I think this is an incredible time to make things, and I hope it stays around for a while.
Couldn't have said it better myself. And this is part of the reason why so many people are so worried about things like SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and TPP. We don't want this amazing era to go away. We just want it to get better and better.
We just wrote about Nimblebit's response to Zynga upon discovering Zynga's game that looks a lot like a Nimblebit game. In that post, we noted that even Nimblebit's game was hardly the first such game out there, and now (as pointed out in our comments), someone decided to take the format of Nimblebit's letter, and redo it as a letter to Nimblebit about the other games that inspired Nimblebit's game. The tone is a little snarky -- and to be honest, I never got the feeling from the original that Nimblebit was claiming that it, too, wasn't inspired by others. Still, this really does show the nature of creativity and copying these days. All of these games can (and do) happily co-exist in the marketplace, where they can compete with each other to improve and provide a better consumer experience. And that seems like a good thing. On top of that, for those who are worried about another company copying them, it helps to remember that then you can copy their best ideas right back.... and improve on them. It's through this sort of process that innovation rates increase...
Aaron DeOliveira points us to an amusing Christmas to New Year's week diversion in the story of the song, WTF?! I Wanted An iPhone!!! (warning, potentially NSFW, if your work place doesn't like people singing curses). Beyond being entertaining and amusing, the story behind it is a cool case study in how creativity comes from all sorts of strange sources online. The story begins with comedy writer Jon Hendren, being bored on Christmas Eve & Christmas, and playing around with Twitter search, doing searches on terms seeking particularly entitled and angry tweets from kids who didn't get "what they wanted" on Christmas -- with "what they wanted" being defined as an iPhone, an iPad or a car. Hendren then started retweeting the ones he found:
That, itself, started to go viral, at which point singer Jonathan Mann, who's made quite a name for himself writing, recording and releasing a song a day ever since January 1 of 2009, picked up on the story and wrote the song linked above (his 1089th song, if you were wondering). The song basically takes some of the "best" of the entitled tweets and produces a fun little ditty (again, potentially NSFW):
Now, this whole thing is silly (or, potentially, a bit sickening when you look at how entitled some of those kids feel), but it really does demonstrate a few different concepts, all wrapped up in one nice holiday package:
Creativity comes from all sorts of strange sources
Online, collaboration can happen without people even realizing it (and that's cool)
The ability to create, promote and distribute content just keeps getting easier and easier
It's kind of amazing how frequently those who argue and advocate for more draconian copyright laws show themselves to be totally out of touch with actual culture. In fact, it frequently seems like they want these laws to prevent new forms of culture simply because they don't like (and don't understand) the culture. For example, Michael Geist notes that Leah Pinsent, a Canadian actor, appearing on behalf of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), spoke before the government, arguing against a "mashup" provision in the proposed copyright reform, which would legalize non-commercial, with attribution, mashup works. According to Pinsent, this idea is immoral:
Ms. Pinsent is fighting to prohibit so-called “mash-ups,” which allow anyone to take elements of works that Canadian artists have created and mix them with other works to create something new. She argues the practice is “morally wrong” and constitutes a form of plagiarism.
Of course, plagiarism is when you take someone else's work without attribution (and is separate from copyright law). Under the proposed law, attribution is required, so it's not clear what Pinsent is so upset about, other than that she just doesn't like mashups. But, as we've seen over and over again, this just appears to be cultural snobbery by someone who doesn't know much about mashup culture, no different than past generations who looked down on jazz, rock, rap or any other "new" music that they just didn't get. Nothing in a mashup takes away from an older work. There's this weird belief that someone doing something with your work somehow "damages" the original, but nothing is further from the truth. Mashups quite frequently introduce new audiences to old works and create new appreciations for old works. I know that's absolutely true with me. When I listen to various mashups, I'm always much more interested in hearing the originals. So I'm at a loss as to how it could be immoral or bad.
Of course, Pinsent isn't completely alone in this view. After all, much of the world has "moral rights" built into copyright law, which allow creators to block others from modifying their works on "moral" grounds. In fact, moral rights are required under the Berne Convention (something the US has skirted by granting them in an incredibly limited fashion such that they really don't exist). But I've never understood how there's any actual moral claim behind moral rights. How is it "moral" to block others from creating something entirely new? It seems, once again, to be based on the idea that the new somehow "harms" the old, but I've yet to see an argument for how that makes any sense at all.
Do you have a video camera and untapped creative juices? There are more and more outlets for uploading your videos, and there are even people willing to pay you for your contributions. Here are just a few open video contests out there.