Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

Archive for the ‘society & culture’ Category

Culture, Creativity, and Copyright

Posted by midiguru on July 29, 2014

The law of copyright is a modern innovation. Copyright protection was developed for an important reason — to enable creative people to earn a living by doing creative work. Before the law assumed its present form, authors and composers routinely saw their popular works pirated. Unless an artist was fortunate enough to have a wealthy patron, the artist’s income was precarious.

As valuable as this legal framework has been to thousands of artists, there’s a downside. Works that captivate the public (and also, for that matter, works that remain little-known) remain exclusively owned and controlled for a number of years by the owner of the copyright. During the term of the copyright, nobody else can make use of the materials in a creative work.

Here’s a neat example of why this is a bad thing. In 1562, a long-forgotten author named Arthur Brooke published an English translation, in verse, of an Italian love story. He called it “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Only 30 years later, Shakespeare recast the story in a play, Romeo and Juliet. If modern copyright law had been in existence in England in the 16th century, we would not be able to enjoy that play today, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have written it. Just as likely, Brooke couldn’t have published his translation either, so Shakespeare would never have been inspired by it.

Technically, Shakespeare could have written the play — and then put it away in a drawer for 50 or 75 years, until Brooke’s copyright expired. But why would he have written it if he couldn’t publish it or have it performed?

Culture is not a private act. It’s a shared public experience, a shared human experience. Culture should not be kept locked away in tight little boxes that nobody is allowed to open unless they’ve checked out an authorized key from the Official Keeper of the Authorized Keys.

The law of copyright turns culture into a commodity. It turns the recipients and beneficiaries of culture (that is, all of us) into passive consumers. We’re allowed to enjoy the hallowed works of culture, but we’re not allowed to participate in them in any significant creative way.

Unless, of course, the copyright holder gives permission, either tacitly or overtly. The world of fanfic (fan fiction) is apparently quite healthy. People write their own Harry Potter stories, their own Star Wars and Star Trek stories. Some authors (such as J. K. Rowling) allow it. Others (such as George R. R. Martin) don’t. It’s up to the author — or, if the author has died or sold the rights, to the current owner of the copyright.

I’m sure most fanfic is dreadful, but that’s neither here nor there. The people who write fanfic are actively participating in their own culture, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Eventually, after the passage of years (and the law differs from one nation to another with respect to how many years have to pass) a copyrighted work passes into the public domain. When that happens, anybody can exercise their own creativity by freely adapting the material. Anybody can write Sherlock Holmes stories or Wizard of Oz stories, because those books are in the public domain.

To be more specific, the L. Frank Baum Oz books are in the public domain. Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books aren’t, so you can use the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, but you can’t use any characters that Thompson created.

As that caveat suggests, you have to be careful. Want to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon? It was published in 1930. The legal situation in the United States is murky, but many novels published since 1923 are still protected by copyright. You might have the makings of a terrific mystery starring Sam Spade rattling around in your head, but unless the copyright owner (whoever that happens to be) is feeling charitably disposed, you could be in for a world of hurt.

This is not how culture and creativity are supposed to work. I don’t have a solution to offer, but there is damn well a problem here.

Posted in music, politics, random musings, society & culture, writing | 4 Comments »

Outfoxed

Posted by midiguru on July 28, 2014

It occurred to me this afternoon that in the past year I’ve done nine electronic arrangements of venerable Beatles tunes. Possibly a few other people might like to hear them. Some sort of digital download is obviously the distribution method of choice; nobody is likely to send me money for a physical CD.

I’d like this to be legal. Not that Paul McCartney needs the money, but maintaining legal distribution is an important ethical principle for musicians. So I wandered over to the website of the Harry Fox Agency to find out what it would cost. What I learned was a bit odd, and left some unanswered questions. There are, shall we say, difficulties.

The statutory rate for Permanent Digital Downloads (that is, files, not streaming music) is 9.1 cents per download for songs that are up to five minutes in length. Harry Fox Agency (HFA for short) licenses a minimum of 25 downloads per song. Since I don’t have what you might call actual fans, 25 may even be a good estimate. At that rate, I would be paying a royalty of $2.28 per song.

Here’s what’s weird: HFA themselves collect a fee of $16 per song (for each of the first five songs, and $14 for each song above five). At that rate, HFA would be raking in almost seven times as much money as Paul McCartney (and of course Paul’s management would pocket part of that). In concrete terms, by setting up an HFA account and becoming a legal purveyor of music, I would not be supporting the songwriters. I would be supporting the corporate machinery.

The HFA boilerplate, which for a change I actually read rather than just clicking Agree, was clearly drafted by high-priced lawyers. My money would be going, among other places, into the pockets of those lawyers. Color me less than thrilled about this.

Of course, if I were estimating that I’d sell 2,000 downloads per song, the HFA fee would fade into insignificance. But that’s just another way of saying that this is one of those places where the little guy gets screwed and the high-stakes players have an advantage.

Five of my nine arrangements are medleys containing two tunes each. Do I just pay once for the medley, or do I pay twice? If I were combining a Beatles song with a Stones song, it would make sense to pay twice … but if both songs are owned by the same copyright holder and the total length of the track is under five minutes, should I be charged twice?

The more serious issue is, how exactly does HFA propose to determine the number of downloads I’ve gotten? I have no commercial website set up to track downloads. That would be extra overhead for me, and the information would be of no value to me (unless I’m audited by HFA). What if I’m giving the files away — which is what I intend to do — and not keeping track of the number of downloads? Am I in violation of the law if I do that? To be specific, does the law require me to set up the machinery to track the downloads even if I’m not requiring my two dozen alleged fans to pay for the music?

I inquired, and received an answer from them on these points: I can give the music away, as long as I’ve paid for a mechanical license, and no metering is required. They simply require you to estimate, at the time when you request the license, the number of downloads you’ll be getting. This is good news.

The license is only good for 12 months, however. After that, I’m supposed to re-apply. And that would be another $16 per song going to Harry Fox.

The HFA FAQ explains that their mechanical licenses only cover the United States. Distribution in other nations requires separate licensing in those nations. The Internet being a more or less global thing, it’s a bit hard to see how any artist could comply with this when providing downloadable recordings of arrangements of songs by other composers. If a French fan downloads my files, I would become a criminal in France, even if I have complied with all of the U.S. licensing requirements.

I may be able to get answers to some of these questions by phoning HFA. (Well, no — you can’t even talk to anybody by phoning them. But they do answer inquiries made on their web form.) In any event, my money is still going to be feeding the corporate monster, not ending up in the pockets of the musicians. Do I want to pay Harry Fox and their lawyers a couple of hundred bucks? I can afford it, so it may be the safe thing to do.

Perusing the HFA FAQ, I learn that for a medley or an “arrangement of an existing song that alters the melody or character” (which all of my arrangements do — why else would I bother?), I have to get permission from the publisher as well as a license from HFA. It seems fairly clear that all jazz instrumental recordings of pop tunes would fall afoul of this requirement — so do all jazz recording artists have to jump through this hoop? I don’t know. But this requirement, frankly, pushes me over the line. I have no aspirations as a professional creative artist; I just want a few people to be able to hear my creative work. Clearly, the music publishing industry is NOT set up to support people like me. The music industry is set up in such a manner as to oppress people like me with burdensome paperwork and inappropriate fees.

On top of which, if I were to approach the publisher with my request, they might turn me down! Harry Fox can’t turn you down — they administer what are called compulsory licenses, a legal term meaning that legally you can’t be prevented from releasing a new recording of a previously recorded song, you just have to pay a standard rate. But we can imagine the consternation in the front office of the publisher of the Beatles catalog if I explained that I was planning to make my work freely downloadable.

Well, “consternation” is too strong a word. They wouldn’t bat an eyelash. They’d just say no. Of course, I could phone them and ask — they might say yes. But phoning them might put me and my electronic arrangements on their radar. As a practical matter, if I just upload the mp3s, they’ll never know.

So that’s what it comes to, sports fans. While crying foul about lost revenue due to digital downloads, the corporate-dominated music industry is quietly leaving independent artists no realistic alternative but to break the law.

Posted in music, society & culture, technology | Leave a Comment »

Indemnification Blues

Posted by midiguru on June 12, 2014

I fuckin’ hate lawyers. Twice this week, I have looked at legal documents that include blanket indemnification clauses. One was a contract presented to freelance writers by one of the magazines for which I’m a semi-regular contributor. The other was a form I might want to fill out and sign, requesting exhibitor space at the local public library.

The contract for freelance writers I don’t propose to comment on at this time. Negotiations are ongoing. Instead, let’s look at the library’s “Display/Exhibit Space Request.”

This document includes the following charming clause: “I agree to indemnify, defend and hold harmless, the City of Livermore, its officers, employees, appointive boards and the Livermore Public Library from and against any and all loss, liability, claims, lawsuits, damage or injury of any kind, including, without limitation, claims for monetary loss, intellectual property infringement, property damage, equitable relief, personal injury, or wrongful death, arising out of or in any way connected to the display or exhibit.”

Lawyers are not, by and large, concerned with what is fair, equitable, or just. They are concerned solely and entirely with protecting their clients from legal exposure or liability. That’s what this clause is about. We can be fairly certain it was drafted by someone in the city attorney’s office. I think we can safely conclude that whoever drafted it does not give a flying crap about the local citizens who might want to use the library’s wonderful exhibit space. The attorneys who drafted and signed off on this sentence care only about protecting the city from any sort of financial risk. That’s their job.

The key phrases are “any and all,” “without limitation,” and “in any way connected.” Only a suicidal moron would sign a document containing this kind of language. If you’ve ever exhibited at the library under this policy, then either you haven’t thought it through, or you secretly like the idea that you might end up homeless, or possibly both.

Oh, but what could possibly go wrong? Let’s see if we can think of an example.

Some of the paintings I’m interested in exhibiting (my father’s work) are large. They would be hanging from the wall. So let’s suppose a painting comes loose from its hook, topples outward, and a corner hits a three-year-old child in the eye, causing irreparable damage to the child’s eye. Let’s further suppose that the reason the painting comes loose is due to either a structural defect in the library’s art hanging system, or to the fact that a previous visitor had pulled on the painting to try to get it loose, in an act of vandalism.

I would be liable. I would have to write a huge check to cover both the child’s medical bills and possibly an award for emotional damages, even though I did nothing to contribute to the accident. What’s more, the legal document doesn’t include any language that would require a finding in court that I was at fault. No — the city attorney could offer the child and its family an out-of-court settlement, and I would still have to write the check. That’s what the word “claims” means. If there’s a claim, I have to pay.

Do I feel like fighting city hall? Not this week, thanks. The library’s visitors are the losers in this situation: They will never get to see an exhibit of my father’s work. Vita brevis, ars in dumpstero, as the Romans might have put it.

Posted in politics, society & culture | 2 Comments »

Facebook Follies

Posted by midiguru on March 19, 2014

I tend to use Facebook as a sort of miniature blog. I might post a two-sentence comment about how my day is going, or a link to a news story that I think is interesting. I might share a home-made cartoon that someone else posted, if I think it’s cute and/or pithy. Discussions and comments are sometimes posted in reply.

My Facebook friends are a heterogeneous lot. Some are people I used to work with at the music magazines. Some are music industry professionals whom I may or may not ever have met. Some are people I went to high school with. One is a second cousin I’ve never met.

Here’s the problem: Some of the cartoons I re-post are aggressive take-downs of religion — and some of my FB friends in the music industry are inclined to be religious. In response to the cartoon and the snarky comments from people who agree with me, these individuals may be offended. They may offer comments of their own in defense of religion.

The surest way to get me to slice you to ribbons is to try to defend religion in my presence. If you try it, I’m not going to give you even an inch of slack. I’m going to explain to you not only the precise manner in which you’re wrong, but just how thoroughly wrong you are, complete with chapter and verse. The chapter and verse might include, for example, Matthew 22, a parable in which Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, society & culture | Leave a Comment »

True Believers

Posted by midiguru on February 24, 2014

Prompted by idle curiosity, I read the first part of Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman. It’s fascinating, in a queasy way. One of the thought-provoking bits is the description of life on L. Ron Hubbard’s yacht, where the inner circle of the “religion” hung out while it cruised the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. By this time, Hubbard had become a strict disciplinarian — a tin pot dictator. Those who failed to meet his expectations were punished by being exiled to a roach-infested compartment in the bowels of the ship, where they slept on pee-stained mattresses.

What’s amazing about this is that everybody who was there put up with it. Nobody (or almost nobody — the book is not specific on this point) said, “Well, fuck this,” and left. This fact gives us a deep insight into the human psyche. Most of us have a deep need to be part of a group, a need to belong. We will put up with almost any sort of treatment, and engage in any sort of bizarre behavior, in order to remain part of the group. Not only that, but our instincts will coerce us into believing that our own group is special. We will feel loyalty to it and affection for it. The thought of not being part of the group will make us nervous.

This is true of people in business settings, in political parties, and indeed in nations. It’s true of the police and the military. It’s true of drug gangs and the Mafia. Being part of the group is more important than being kind. It’s more important than using your intellect to understand what’s going on.

With secular groups, though, there can be a point where the individual says, “Enough. I’m leaving.” When the group is doing bad stuff, the pain of separation eventually becomes Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion, society & culture | 1 Comment »

Where Music Works

Posted by midiguru on February 3, 2014

In the opening chapter of his book How Music Works, David Byrne makes a provocative and insightful observation. In a nutshell, he argues that the type of music composers and performers create depends largely on the type of space in which the music is to be played. The social purposes being served also play a role.

The simplest example of this is to imagine what high-energy funk would sound like if played in a cathedral. A cathedral is an extraordinarily reverberant space. As a result, the crisp rhythms of funk would turn into a dull roar. Trying to play funk in a cathedral would be all but pointless, because nobody could hear what you were doing.

Byrne gives lots of other examples. His underlying point is that our usual fantasy, in which the artist creates something based on an inner impulse toward personal expression, is exactly backwards. What the artist creates will be based, consciously or unconsciously, on how the work is to be delivered to audiences. A small jazz club has entirely different acoustics and social rituals than a concert hall, and neither has any resemblance to a pair of earbuds.

Once in a while I think about trying to take a bunch of my electronic music and turn it into a live concert experience so as to be able to share the music with a few people in small local clubs. One of the things that gives me pause, aside from the logistical difficulties of live performance, is that I’d have to rewrite everything. Long before I read Byrne’s exploration of this idea, I understood instinctively that Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in music, random musings, society & culture | 3 Comments »

The Perils of Freedom

Posted by midiguru on December 22, 2013

Now and again I run into people who feel convinced that government regulation is a Bad Thing. They seem to believe quite firmly that freedom, and by extension a free market economy, is the most desirable state of affairs. Knowing that such people are usually quite impervious to the blandishments of reason, I nevertheless feel compelled to offer some perspective on this quite wrong-headed idea.

To begin with, I think we can all agree that personal freedom is a wonderful thing, and should be given the greatest latitude that is practical. But I think we can also agree that personal freedom can be abused. I’m sure you can think of examples of how people sometimes injure others and see no problem with having done so; there’s no need for us to dwell on this point.

At the moment, I’m more concerned with the conflict between free market ideology and the practice of government regulation. I’m going to explain to you why strict government regulation is a good thing.

This is not to say that the regulations we actually have in the United States today are necessarily a good thing. We can all think of examples of regulation that are overly burdensome, ineffective, open to corruption, a reflection of the enormous egos of powerful people, and so forth. Trotting out your favorite examples of this would serve no purpose. I’m strictly concerned to defend the principle — the idea that regulating economic activity is a good and necessary Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in society & culture | Leave a Comment »

Special Pleading

Posted by midiguru on December 11, 2013

A friend on Facebook posted a link to a HuffPost blog piece on religion. My friend introduced the link by saying, “I have been arguing for years that it is not religion, but the misuse of religion, that causes evil….” After a preliminary salvo in reply to his introduction, I had a look at the article. (You’ll find it at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-mcelwee/stop-blaming-religion-for_b_4416137.html). It was written by someone named Sean McElwee, whose only stated qualification as an authority on this subject is that he’s a writer. Well, so am I, so I guess Sean and I are on equal footing. Let’s see how we fare.

My preliminary comment to my friend began, “…but what is the proper use of religion? Does it have one? I’d appreciate an honest and sensible answer to this question.” To my way of thinking, the utility of religion is that it provides social solidarity for a group of people. But then, so does a bowling league. Is religion different in any essential way from a bowling league?

I went on to say, “Beyond this, I would strongly suggest that any attempt to get religion off the hook on all the evil that is done by religious people is doomed to failure, and for a specific reason: Religious doctrine of any kind produces cognitive blindness. Religious doctrine by its very nature renders the believer unable to separate truth from falsehood. This is the essence of religion! Without blind belief, religion would cease (since, of course, there is nothing there to actually believe in). Thus it is inevitable that religious people will, sooner or later, do evil things.” Why? Because when called upon by the leaders of their sect to do evil things, they won’t be able to acknowledge to themselves that they’re doing evil.

“You’re welcome to try to dispute this,” I told my friend, “but I doubt you’ll be able to do anything other than Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in random musings, religion, society & culture | 1 Comment »

Data Mining

Posted by midiguru on November 25, 2013

So I’m sitting here after dinner, eating a cookie, and the phone rings. It’s an unsolicited call from AT&T, and there’s a real human on the other end, not a recording. Remarkably, it’s not a sales call, and not a phishing attempt either. The young lady just wants to know if my high-speed Internet and phone service is working okay, or if I have any concerns.

At first glance, it makes no sense whatever for AT&T to pay people to phone millions of random customers and ask this kind of question. It would seem to be a money drain for them with no plus side. If I have a problem, wouldn’t I take the initiative and call tech support?

But then the other shoe drops. At dinner I was reading a long article in Atlantic Monthly about data mining. Specifically, about how corporations are using seemingly irrelevant data to find the right people to hire.

Why should my account have popped up on an AT&T data mining operation, prompting them to call me? Easy answer: Last week I stopped turning on the TV. I bought a new synthesizer, you see, so I’ve been busy in the studio. The TV (AT&T cable) has not been active in about 10 days.

The caller didn’t ask specifically about my use of cable, but it’s not hard to connect the dots. Why else would they have called? George Orwell envisioned this kind of thing, but he didn’t go nearly far enough.

Posted in society & culture, technology | Leave a Comment »

The Appeal to Higher Authority

Posted by midiguru on November 6, 2013

I dislike getting in wrangles with people on Facebook. Nobody’s mind ever gets changed as a result, and I seldom learn anything worth knowing. Still, these tiny tempests keep getting stirred up. Quite often on the topic of religion, I’ve noticed. Somebody posts something, I point out the fallacies in it, and before you know it we’re strapping on the gloves and stepping into the ring.

I’ve also noticed that those who adopt a religious position in such discussions are, virtually without exception, impervious to logic and not even faintly interested in logical discourse — unless, of course, they can twist the logic into a form that they can pretend justifies the conclusions they have already reached and are determined to defend.

In order to short-circuit the whole cycle of controversy, I thought I’d write a brief statement, to which I can link whenever it’s needed. It may end up being not entirely brief. We’ll see.

Two thousand years ago, slavery was commonly practiced throughout the world. At that time, women had essentially no rights. Divorce was allowed in Rome, but largely unknown elsewhere. Capital punishment was routinely meted out for trivial offenses. Law enforcement agencies routinely used torture. The concept that citizens Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in religion, society & culture | Leave a Comment »

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 98 other followers