In an article that's actually a bit (but just a bit) more thoughtful than the headline applied to it ("How Corporations Profit From Black Teens' Viral Content"), Fader writer Doreen St. Felix tackles the cultural appropriation of creative works. Sort of.
While the article does quote from a 2008 essay about the historical cultural appropriation of black artists' works by record labels, etc., the article does not point out any specific appropriation occurring here -- at least not in terms of the two creators St. Felix has chosen to write about. And it has nothing to say about how these corporations are "profiting" from this supposed appropriation.
One of those is Kayla Newman, whose offhand comment in a Vine video birthed a new slang term.
In the video everyone knows, uploaded on June 21st, 2014, Kayla admires her precisely arched eyebrows: “We in this bitch. Finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek. Da fuq.”
Newman's Vine video has generated 36 million loops, moving "on fleek" from her lips to the Urban Dictionary
. Some of those stops have been corporate. St. Felix points to IHOP
Twitter accounts' use of the phrase in an attempt to "feign cultural relevance."
That appears to be the extent of the "appropriation." No one's monetizing the phrase, nor have these corporate entities done damage to anyone but themselves
by deploying it. Newman hasn't seen any money from creating the slang term, although it's not for a lack of trying.
“I gave the world a word,” Newman said. “I can’t explain the feeling. At the moment I haven’t gotten any endorsements or received any payment. I feel that I should be compensated. But I also feel that good things happen to those who wait.”
The other artist quoted in the Fader article is a dancer named Denzel Meechie. Meechie performs improvised dance routines to various songs. This has earned him millions of views on YouTube. It has also seen his original account shut down by the rightsholders of the songs he dances to.
In mid-September, YouTube shut down Meechie’s channel, which had accrued hundreds of thousands of subscribers. “I had too many copyright strikes,” he said, referring to his use of songs without explicit legal permission from labels.
Ironically enough, some artists whose labels have issued takedowns have actively sought out Meechie because of his viral cachet.
According to Meechie, labels contact YouTube and demand his videos be taken down, often without the knowledge of their own artists, some of whom pay him directly to help boost their buzz. “And it’s crazy, you know, because the artists ask me to put the videos up.”
That's what happens when you turn over copyright enforcement to algorithms
Once again, we're not seeing much evidence of corporate cultural appropriation of black artists' creations. But the essay St. Felix quotes from does
have something relevant to say about the intellectual property power structure.
“Black artists had no input in [copyright law], and examination reveals that it is in some respects incompatible with Black cultural production in music,” writes Greene, arguing that multiple copyright standards were specifically structured to preclude black blues artists, especially women, from claiming ownership.
It's not just black artists, though. It's all
artists. Intellectual property laws have been refined by corporations and their lobbyists to provide the most protection for those with the means to benefit from extended copyright terms and ridiculously generous readings of trademark claims: corporations.
But K.J. Greene's next assertion (from her cultural appropriation essay) goes right off the rails.
“The idea/expression dichotomy of copyright law prohibits copyright protection for raw ideas,” Greene wrote. “I contend that this standard provided less protection to innovative black composers, whose work was imitated so wildly it became ‘the idea.’”
Opening up the law to include protection of ideas won't stop the IHOPs of the world from borrowing slang from a teen on Vine. It will, however, be exploited thoroughly by the same labels and studios that exploited black artists in the past. It won't level the playing field. And beyond all of that, it's just a stupid thing to say.
As is some of this, when St. Felix tries to tie this all together.
In some sense, the roaring debates over white appropriation of black slang, music, and dance have worked as an avatar for circumstance of the independent black creator in the digital age. But the analog is insufficient. Intellectual property and viral content should be interrogated from a legal standpoint[...]. The copyright statute under which Meechie’s YouTube account got flagged and then taken down should be re-examined, as should the legal gray areas that leave individual creators like Newman in the cold.
We can agree that the killing of Meechie's original YouTube account should be examined more closely, but the fault lies with labels that have opted for efficiency over accuracy -- the deployment of bots that only recognize certain arrangements of ones and zeroes, eliminating any of the nuance or context that make fair use a viable defense.
As for Newman, it's entirely unclear how much income St. Felix -- or even Newman herself -- expects a viral video loop that birthed a slang term to generate. Users can't monetize Vine loops, at least not directly. Pursuing someone for copyright infringement (if they used the Vine loop in a YouTube compilation video, for example) would be of limited usefulness.
If the concern is limited to the worldwide "unauthorized" use of "on fleek," the route for monetization runs through the trademark office. Unlike copyright, trademark doesn't apply automatically. It must be applied for, accepted and -- most importantly -- put to use. These steps aren't cheap.
But why should anyone expect this contribution to the English language to generate income? It's two words from a seven-second video, and the only way it would conceivably be protected would be as a trademarked phrase, which would only prevent others from using it under specific
circumstances for specific
goods/services. It will not return "ownership" to Newman. Nor will it rebalance the IP playing field. There's arguably nothing protectable here, no matter how Newman, St. Felix or essayist K.J. Greene feel about it.
Yes, corporations are opportunists who will often use current slang to coat their advertising with "How do you do, fellow kids
?" vibes. But they're not co-opting cultures. They're just acting the way we expect corporations to act: make various stabs at youthful relevance with (usually) awful results. St. Felix's article does a great job tracing the origin of the phrase, but never comes close to making a point about cultural appropriation or tying this supposed act to corporate profits.
The point that does come through is that something
is wrong with IP laws, but the fixes suggested here would only make things worse. And even embracing the ridiculous concept of extending IP protections to unformed ideas still wouldn't
turn two words into money. Being outraged that corporations frequently behave in a manner that only furthers their own
interests is a nonstarter. Stretching the shameless repurposing of slang by corporate Twitter accounts and the merciless actions of infringement bots to be indicative of a new era of exploitation of black artists is reading far too much into the predictable actions of both corporations and the bots that work for them.