media madness

Recently I've been thinking a lot about art and media with regards to copyrights. In the digital age, artists that create or sell their work electronically are faced with a huge hurdle of protecting their creations and performances so they can still profit from them and continue to pursue their lifestyles.

However, it seems that everyone has become hyper-sensitive in protecting their creations, particularly in the realm of music. It's no longer about protecting recordings of specific performances, but about the songs themselves. Recently, there was the story of a UK shop worker singing regularly at work being asked not to sing without a performance licence. Thankfully, the PRS realized they made a mistake, but that fact that they asked her to stop in the first place signals to me that something is very, very wrong. I can't tell if it's greed or if people are just worried about giving an inch and then being walked over by the public.

On the complete other end of the spectrum, Yoko Ono's Plastic Ono band is has released a track under CC Attribution-NonCommercial license and is asking people to remix it. That pushes some of my happy buttons. So why is it that so few artists release their work under CC?

First, let's think about why CC works so well for software (which is just as valuable as music in many ways). First: there is substantial community support for it. When something is released under CC, the releasers get lots and lots of gold star stickers. Second: software code lends itself well to sharing. If someone else already solved a problem, no reason to reinvent the wheel. Third: Anybody with a computer can use it or generate it. Forth: it's inconspicuous to do. The CC notice is like having the bibliography of a written work be inherent in the paper rather than being printed on top of it. That's just a cursory list.

And how about music? I think that all of the reasons I mentioned above could easily be applied to music as well. So why don't we do it? Why is software considered to be something that should belong to everyone and music should belong to those that pay? Is software more "needed"? I think that those who argue that music is more of a luxury commodity than software need to look closer. Song and music has been part of human culture from the very beginning. I'd argue that we need it more than we need software, but that its digital forms are on par with software in terms of "need." Artists and record companies just need to relax a little.

One reason that they can't relax, however, is that there is no equivalent way of citing sources the way we can with software. To re-use some code, the CC blip is already there. You use it and that's it. I think we could use a similar system for music. You just have the original files tagged, and then when you generate music, or any other virtual media using that source, it propagates the tag and you can tack on your own. Done. Easy. Imagine the day when school paper bibliographies are as easy as this.

Well, what if you make a "hard copy" of the media? What, you going to print out that eBook and sell it? Don't think so. And your remixed song? Umb, CD's are still digital, so burning it isn't a problem. You'd have to play it out and re-record it to get rid of the tag, probably decreasing the quality of the piece in the process. Or you could perform it live, in which case I think you should have all the rights to it, even if you're performing another person's work. It's only if you try to sell the results that it'd get hairy.

Digital media should all be CC'ed in my opinion. People are going remix song and frankenstein other digital media for personal use anyway, so why not encourage them, so long as they can't sell the result? Oh wait, people want to be paid for their media. That's right. Well, people will buy your merchandise, tickets to your show, and they'll still buy your music, even if you release it under CC. Why? Because they'll like you and want to support you.


Lucas Sanders said...

Do you believe all software should be distributed with a Creative Commons (and/or OSI-approved) license?

ajb said...

Always making me think things through, aren't you?

It's a good point, though. I don't think developers should be required to distribute their software for free, but it'd still be nice if it was! Same with music. These are just dreams we're talking about--there definitely shouldn't be laws requiring it for either or anything like that.

That said, I think that music could benefit from the industry loosening its hold a little. Other than Yoko Ono, I can't think of a single well-known artist that puts their stuff out there for free to be remixed, but maybe I'm out of the loop. Can you think of any?

So you're right, maybe all was a little extreme. But there should be more. I think it'd just promote a more musically creative society.

Lucas Sanders said...

Maybe. Mostly, I think I'm just always making myself think things through. :)

I'm pretty sure I've heard of one or two other well-known artists who have done something similar — for example, I seem to recall one or two artists providing full track separations as a Garageband project shortly after that product's release to facilitate fan remixes — but I don't remember who might have done that, and it's certainly not a common occurrence.

I agree that the music industry (as a whole) has demonstrated a tendency to shoot themselves in the feet by adopting policies that hurt their customers much more than anyone who might actually try to cheat them. And of course forcing people to release their music or software under free (libre) licenses isn't really even under discussion.

I have observed, though, that open source is a better mechanism for some types of software than others. As far as I can tell, user experience-level innovations rarely if ever happen in a community-controlled software project. On the other hand, I want as much of my infrastructure-level software as possible to be controlled by an open-source community, because that sort of open-source code tends to have much higher security and reliability than similar proprietary code. To me, these observations suggest that a healthy software development ecosystem will probably need to have a wide variety of licensing models, ranging from a community-driven open-source project all the way to a fully proprietary system, where a lot of the really useful products fall somewhere in the middle of the licensing spectrum.

All this makes me wonder if there are similar situations in the music industry. It seems to me that the primary free-culture business model for musicians would be to use their recordings as a way to drive interest in their concerts, and that nowadays this would indeed be a better strategy for many musicians than the traditional one. (Previously, one made a saleable recording for this purpose because artists needed the distribution reach of a label for their recordings to potentially garner any interest.) But this business model wouldn't really work for kinds of music that are actually much more enjoyable to experience on a recording than to experience a live performance... do such things exist? And this business model might also preclude us from enjoying the musical talents of any reclusive geniuses out there.

Make of that what you will; at the moment, I'm mostly just thinking "out loud".

JBB said...

Hmmm. For an opposite view, see Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin. Intelligent alternative to open source and he makes the point that authors should have the right, but of course can choose otherwise, to protect intellectual property.

Lucas Sanders said...

JBB, I'm confused by your comment — I don't see anyone here claiming that authors should not have the right to protect and profit from their works. Instead, I thought we were discussing when and how authors might best choose to exercise those rights.