Copy rights? Wrong.

Last week, in an eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-tomorrow-they-take-away-Napster mood, I suggested that the problem with the record industry on this issue—the reason they're scared to death of online music exchanges, and the reason that fear is too bad and too late—is that they have the product I want but not the packaging.

Most of y'all understood what I was getting at (or were too busy stocking up on tunes to bother writing in), but I did get flak from two quarters: JS of Bellevue and my grandmother, both of whom opined that as a writer and therefore invested in the copyright process I ought to be shocked, shocked at MP3 trading.

I don't know JS, but I explained to my grandmother in just a few minutes why your average creative person—musician, writer, whatever—is at the very least conflicted about and in many cases supportive of the Napsters of the world: Copyright, in its current incarnation, has almost nothing to do with creative folk and everything to do with corporate profits that never reach the artist.

The modern idea of copyright originated in England when publishers were given the right to make copies of a particular book for several years. In America, the framers of the Constitution liked copyright and provided that "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts" the creators thereof were entitled, for a limited time, "the exclusive Rights to their respective writings and discoveries." Over the years, the "limited time" was extended from 14 years to the life of the author to the current life-plus-75 years, or if you're a corporation life-plus-90.

Let me simplify those numbers for you. Every song, every piece of writing ever created in your lifetimes, JS and Grandma, is someone else's property. Problem is, it's not artists' property.

At least not working artists' property. See that Wallace Stevens parody on the previous page? I wrote that. And if I ever want to publish it outside the friendly confines of Seattle Weekly, I'm going to have to get the permission of Village Voice Media—they own the copyright. That's called work for hire. And not to be brownnosing, but I've got a good deal here; the Weekly's publishers aren't as nasty as they might be. I could be Linda Weltner, who after 20 years as a Boston Globe columnist got fired last month when she refused to sign a contract granting all rights to all her columns (past, present, and future) to the Globe—for free. She was getting the princely sum of $350 per column, by the way (no raise in 15 years); that contract made sure that was all she'd get, ever. (The Globe, on the other hand, would be free to reprint the columns online or off, in books or on billboards, forever and ever amen. Free.)

Gets worse. I know writers for other newspapers who have been asked to sign contracts that say they won't write on Topic X (whatever they're writing on) for any other publication. That means if you're a freelancer specializing in, say, entomology, and you write on bugs for the Podunk Bugle, you'd better hope the Bugle pays enough to support you 'cause your expertise will go no farther than their pages. (Did I mention Weltner's pay rate?)

And musicians? Simple. If you're under contract and you write a song, the company owns the copyright. Screw you.

And so it's back to me, Angela-the-consumer, expected to buy in bulk a commodity I want only in single servings, because it's convenient for the record companies. Pay for it? I'd be happy to bypass the bulk-buying system and purchase (yes, purchase; surveys show a majority of Napster users would be pleased to pay a subscription fee to be prorated to all artists whose music they downloaded in a given amount of time) that single serving directly from the artist— but that's not allowed either, because for the "convenience" of the companies the artist has been relieved of his copyright.

The record industry has to do what every other industry has done in the past five years: Figure the Net out. Some artists—with the vision or courage or fan base to call the "music industry" what it is, which is a 20th-century oxymoron like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence—are asking how they can prosper online, where fans will sit up at 3am downloading a favorite song or digitizing a copy of a decades-out-of-print vinyl rarity ("cchris," thanks so much!). As a Net citizen, a music lover, and a person who makes my living through creativity, I want to support those guys. I demand, like any good consumer under capitalism, that the companies holding their work hostage provide the method by which I prefer to do so—or I, like millions of Napster, Gnutella, Freenet, and Scour fans, know someone who will.

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow