Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘society & culture’ Category

Smut Smiters

Posted by midiguru on June 11, 2015

I’m kind of burned out on the whole Caitlyn Jenner thing — trying to explain to people that a trans woman is not “a man in a dress.” But somewhere along the way, I was taking a quick, horrified glance at a couple of radical feminist web pages, and I was reminded that most radical feminists are vehemently opposed to pornography.

Whenever we find supposed leftists aligning themselves with fundamentalist Christians, we should probably be a little suspicious. But the Christians’ objections to pornography are really too silly to be worth discussing. The feminist objections, I think, can be dealt with in a rational manner.

If I understand it correctly (and please correct me if I’m missing something), the feminist objections to pornography are, first, that the pornography industry exploits women; and second, that pornography objectifies women by portraying them simply as bodies suitable for lusty purposes rather than as whole human beings.

Of course, gay male pornography complicates the picture. Really, we should be talking about “people” rather than “women.” But let’s avoid complicating the discussion.

I’m sure it’s true that the pornography industry exploits women. But then, so does the garment industry in Taiwan. I’m guessing that the type of exploitation that so upsets radical feminists is that the women who are employed as photographic models or film actresses in pornography are required to take their clothes off as part of their employment. And to engage in real or simulated sex acts.

However, artist models routinely pose naked. And are sometimes paid for doing so, I’m sure. For that matter, there are nudist colonies and clothing-optional beaches. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either nakedness or being paid to get naked.

If some women feel that being in porn (or stripping) is the only way they can earn a decent living, then yes, that’s exploitation. The solution is not, however, to remove those job opportunities. The solution is to provide other well-paying job opportunities so that women don’t have to do porn unless they want to.

I’m pretty sure some of them do want to. And that fact is nobody’s business but their own. Neither the radical feminists nor the fundie Xtians get to say, “But she shouldn’t want to!” No, you don’t get to go there.

Is there something uniquely awful about being paid for sex, as opposed to, say, being paid for cleaning motel rooms or working as a cashier at Wal-Mart? No, I think we can dismiss that notion. Sex is a normal, healthy activity.

Prostitution ought to be legal, and plenty of feminists understand that. Laws against prostitution punish women. How is engaging in sex for pay on camera any different? It’s not.

In sum, the argument that pornography exploits the women who work in the porn industry pretty much falls apart when you look at it closely.

But doesn’t pornography objectify women? Doesn’t it demean all women, whether or not they’re on camera? Doesn’t it give men unrealistic fantasy ideas about women’s bodies? Doesn’t it damage men’s ability to relate to real women as whole human beings?

I think if you took a survey, you would find that most heterosexual men think healthy, well-formed 20-year-old women are sexier than healthy, well-formed 40-year-old women. I think you would find that most men are not sexually aroused by pimples, wrinkles, stretch marks, or surgical scars. (There are exceptions, of course.) Most men have, in other words, an ideal in their heads of what they would like a sex partner to look like. The ideal will differ from one man to another, but there will almost always be an ideal. A man who is equally aroused by all women, and who is not lying about it, would be extremely rare, and would probably be worth studying in a laboratory that’s equipped with brain scanning technology. We can safely say there must be something wrong with his wiring.

Men’s ideas of what they would ideally prefer in a sex partner are not created by the porn industry. The ideals are natively just there, in the men’s heads. The porn industry certainly targets those ideals, but it doesn’t create them. It can’t create them. It’s really difficult to get anyone sexually turned on by something that he or she doesn’t already want to get turned on by.

Most men understand that the sex partner they have is less than ideal — and they’re okay with that. Unless something a lot better comes along, of course. Infidelity and divorce are painful and unfortunate, but they’re not caused by the porn industry. They would exist, and probably at about the same frequency, even if pornography were prohibited. Indeed, a case could be made that pornography gives some men a sexual outlet that allows them to remain faithful to their wife. In the absence of pornography, they might feel a greater need to seek outside stimulation of a more direct and personal nature.

It’s important, too, to emphasize that when a man looks at a woman — perhaps a stranger — and is turned on by her in a specifically sexual way, without reference to her personality or her other fine qualities, that’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m sure millions of happy marriages have begun in momentary lust. Men are not such primitive, loathsome creatures that they are unable to move outward from their lust into an appreciation of a woman’s intelligence, honesty, or other attributes.

One of the basic rules of progressive politics is this: Politics stops at the bedroom door. You don’t get to have a political opinion about what turns anybody on. You don’t get to say, “But that shouldn’t turn you on!” As long as the two (or more) people involved in the sexual encounter are consenting adults, anything they do is fine, and any feelings that they have are fine.

Attempting to demonize pornography is, at root, an attempt to tell men, “But you shouldn’t be turned on by that!” It’s bullshit. Men are turned on by whatever they’re turned on by, and as long as it involves consenting adults, you don’t get to have an opinion about it.

Sexual attractiveness is a commodity. The mating game is market economics in action. We all try to make the best deal we can, and we all try to market ourselves as well as possible — through personal grooming, buying a fast car, or whatever. That’s biology, as expressed through human instinct and human culture. I’m going to be unkind here. My suspicion is that quite often radical feminists object to the portrayal of women in porn because they, the radical feminists, feel ill equipped to compete with the women in porn.

But you know, I’m ill equipped to compete with Ben Affleck. That’s reality. Deal with it.

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“The New Atheists”

Posted by midiguru on April 26, 2015

One occasionally sees references to “the new atheists.” It’s not a term of flattery or respect. The people who use this phrase seem, almost without exception, to be trying to discredit the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and perhaps one or two others.

Their attempts are usually irritating. Bad reasoning, ad hominem attacks, and sweeping ignorant generalizations are not in short supply. Tonight, while doing the dishes, I think I figured out what the problem is.

At a fundamental level, atheism is one thing, and criticism of organized religion is a different thing. One can be scathingly critical of organized religion (some of it or perhaps all of it) without being an atheist. Conversely, one can be an atheist purely as a personal matter, while possibly retaining great respect for religious values, religious communities, and religious symbols.

It seems to me that people who use the phrase “the new atheists” are not, for the most part, upset with the atheistic reasoning (call it a credo if you like; I won’t) of atheists new or old. Lack of belief in a deity is not the issue. The issue is that these people think you shouldn’t criticize organized religion. They think religion is entitled to be accorded some sort of unique respect — that religion is deserving of a special social standing that lifts it into a region where criticism ought not to penetrate. What they’re disturbed about is that Dawkins, Hitchens, and their allies. not content merely to profess or promote atheism, also insist on leveling devastating and well-reasoned critiques at the institutions of organized religion. And from time to time at the mental processes of religious believers.

This is, I suppose, a new trend. There have always been atheists. We have a few writings from pre-Christian Rome that suggest that at least a few upper-class Romans were atheists. It seems quite likely that several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also atheists, though they cloaked their opinions very carefully in their writings in order to avoid disturbing the status quo. But until quite recently, religion was sacrosanct. Protestants could criticize Catholics in vicious terms; Catholics could retaliate by lambasting Protestants. But very few people were willing to stand up and say out loud, “Hey, the whole thing is a crock of shit.”

It should have happened 2,000 years ago. But until the invention of the telescope and the microscope, until the theory of evolution was developed, the criticism of religion could only be of specific practices that might be considered objectionable. The foundations of the whole enterprise could only be revealed as deeply and horribly flawed when science had progressed to the point at which religious belief of any sort was no longer intellectually defensible. Those who are still trying to defend it have to resort to more and more arcane and convoluted pretexts.

As far as I’m concerned, religion — any religion, or the whole enchilada wrapped up in greasy paper to go — is entitled to no more respect than the Shriners, the Odd Fellows, Monsanto, or the NRA. All of them are human institutions, and all can be, and indeed must be, criticized using the same intellectual tools and the same criteria. For starters, do the leaders of these institutions tell lies? I don’t know whether the Odd Fellows tell lies, but I’m damn sure bald-faced lies are being told by most Christian ministers, most Sundays.

I think it may have been in Dawkins’s The God Delusion that he, or somebody, remarks that there is really no basis on which Oxford or any other university could grant a degree in theology, because there’s nothing to study. That pretty much sums it up.

Posted in religion, society & culture | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

Safety

Posted by midiguru on March 27, 2015

The logic is really very simple.

You’re in a crowd of a hundred people. Where, doesn’t matter. You could be at a convention, in a shopping mall, in a large restaurant, or on the sidewalk on a busy city streetcorner.

The logic is this: If none of those hundred people is carrying a gun, everybody is safer. If five of the hundred people are carrying guns, everybody is less safe. If fifty of them are carrying guns, you’re in a very dangerous situation indeed.

Why? Because in any group of a hundred people, it’s quite likely that two or three of them are either mentally ill, mentally impaired by alcohol, or just very, very angry. The more people in the group have guns, the more likely it is that one of them is going to pull out his or her gun and use it.

Logically, then, if you choose to carry a gun (a concealed handgun, or openly), the other 99 people in the crowd are less safe. I know that people sometimes claim they carry a concealed handgun out of concern for their personal safety. So the question is, do you care about the safety of the other 99 people in the crowd, or do you only care about your own safety, and the hell with everybody else? It’s really that simple.

Yes, there are good, logical reasons to carry a gun. Not very many reasons, perhaps, but there are some. If you’re a courier entrusted with large amounts of cash or important documents, you should carry a gun. If you’re a private detective, you should certainly be able to carry a gun when your own judgment indicates that it’s a good idea. If you’re being stalked by an ex-spouse or ex-lover, absolutely — carry a gun! If you have a meth lab in your basement, or even a marijuana plantation in your back yard, having a gun within easy reach makes good sense.

But those reasons don’t apply to very many people. Most of us have no reason at all to carry a gun. Yet lots of people who don’t need them do carry them. And why? It seems to me the reasons boil down to two: irrational fear, or an arrogant need to assert one’s individual rights and freedoms even at the expense of other people’s safety.

Please note: Nothing that I have said here has anything to do with your legal rights or the Second Amendment. I’m not concerned, at the moment, about what’s legal. I’m concerned only about public safety.

It’s often useful, in questions of personal conduct, to ask yourself, “What would the world be like if everybody did this? Would I want to live in that world?” If you honestly believe that the world would be a better, safer, and more joyous place if everybody carried guns, I hope you’ll consider, seriously and at length, the possibility that your emotions may have warped your rational judgment.

I like freedom too. But we all have to live in the world together. Sometimes — quite often, in fact — our individual freedom has to be tempered by the understanding of how our actions may affect others.

Posted in society & culture | 2 Comments »

Something About the Age

Posted by midiguru on February 28, 2015

The modern world is not a nice place to get old in. At least not in the U.S. Rather than being venerated for our wisdom, we geezers seem to be on our way to the trash heap. What I’ve been seeing this week is happening in the music industry, because that’s where I am, but I don’t think it’s peculiar to the music industry.

One friend, now in his early 60s, has just been laid off from an editor job he has had for eight years, at a well-known country music publication. His brother, who edits a drum magazine, just now sent me an email saying he’s working a 15-hour day to meet his next deadline. He no longer has an editorial staff; it’s just him.

Keyboard’s new issue arrived today. 52 pages. That’s slim. I know Steve Fortner is doing the editorial chores there by himself — probably some 15-hour days. Recently someone posted a photo on Facebook of the Keyboard editorial staff from the ’80s, and Michael Molenda, who is still editing Guitar Player after all these years, commented that in those days we had as many editors just for Keyboard as they now have for Keyboard, Guitar Player, Bass Player, and Electronic Musician combined.

It’s not just that the publishing world has changed, though that’s part of it. What we’re also seeing is that the work of skilled writers and editors is no longer respected. Work your fingers to the bone and then get tossed out on the street — that’s the way it happens.

I feel very lucky to have gotten off as easily as I have in the geezer department, but I can’t claim any credit for it. My parents were able to buy a house in the suburbs in 1964. I inherited the house, but if my mother’s final illness had lasted ten years instead of six months, we would have had to sell the house to pay for her care. I’d be in a whole lot worse shape — maybe working 15-hour days, or maybe scrambling around trying to find a job, any job, at the age of 66, instead of being a gentleman of leisure.

It wasn’t always this way. Older workers were once respected for their ability and their accumulated knowledge.

Posted in society & culture | 3 Comments »

Government Isn’t Cheap

Posted by midiguru on February 11, 2015

In the course of a discussion on Facebook — the topic was marriage licenses — I agreed with one of the participants that perhaps the government shouldn’t issue marriage licenses at all. But I pointed out that this would result in a fearful legal tangle. Couples would no longer have protection against their spouse being forced to testify against them in court, because the concept of being a spouse would have no legal meaning. When a person dies intestate, their spouse would have no special claim on their property, because spousalness would have no meaning. The dead person’s blood relatives could swoop in and take the house and the jewelry (as does sometimes happen when one of the members of a same-sex couple dies). I also pointed out that the concept of a couple filing a joint tax return would have no meaning. Each member of a couple would have to file separately.

No, this would be a terrible legal tangle. Letting states issue marriage licenses is much, much easier.

The other fellow, however — a self-described “Jeffersonian Libertarian,” whatever that is — saw an opening and dived straight into it. There should be no income tax, he stated.

I took a moment to point out to him that nobody over the age of eight is to be taken seriously when they say that. An eight-year-old deserves a serious explanation of how taxation works; an adult, not. I explained that I would not respond to anything further that he might say on the subject, because he wouldn’t learn anything, and his idiocies would make me ill.

Since a lot of misguided people doubtless agree with him, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to take a few minutes to discuss the subject here.

Premise #1: Government is necessary. Without government, what you have is armed gangs running everything. They go where they like, take whatever they fancy, and murder anybody who tries to get in their way. There’s nobody to stop them, because there’s no government. Government is our big armed gang. In theory, it operates in such a way that everybody has to play by the same rules. The practice of government often diverges wildly and dangerously from the theory, but that’s not a reason to get rid of government! It’s a reason to reform government.

Premise #2: The modern world is very, very complicated. We face dangers such as toxic pollution and identity theft that Thomas Jefferson never dreamed of. To deal with complicated problems, we need a well-funded government. That’s just obvious. You can’t go after ten thousand scheming and resourceful malefactors with one or two district attorneys and Barney Fife. You need an active judiciary, police, courts, and prisons. You need legislators to pass laws. (Our existing legislators are a cruel joke — but again, that’s not an argument against legislation; it’s an argument for reforming the electoral process.)

Two hundred years ago, the federal government was pretty well funded by tariffs. Tariffs are a tax on imports. But that was then. This is now. In order to have an effective government in the modern world, it’s vital that we have a robust form of taxation.

If you think I’m wrong about any of the above, you’re a mental defective. A waste of perfectly good protoplasm. Please wade off into the swamp that you crawled out of, and die.

The question, then, is what sort of taxation is appropriate. We can consider sales taxes, property taxes, and income taxes. We can also consider the government charging fees for services. Granted, our tax laws are a mess — but it seems clear that some sort of mixed system of this sort is probably best.

Most states and municipalities have sales taxes. The sales tax falls hardest on the poor. They pay a greater percentage of their income in sales tax than do the rich. If it were possible to raise all of the money that the government needs strictly through sales taxes, the poor would have no clothing and no furniture, because they couldn’t afford to pay the tax on such items. (There’s a reason why food is not subject to sales tax.) No, a sales tax by itself is not the answer.

Asking people to pay a modest fee for government services is certainly appropriate. But when the fees become excessive, suffering ensues. We can see this currently in the obscene fees being charged for tuition at public universities. The reason tuition is so ruinously high is because Republican lawmakers dig in their heels and refuse to raise taxes. A fee for a driver’s license? Sure, no problem. A toll at a publicly owned bridge? Okay. But a government can’t subsist strictly on fees without raising them to insane levels.

Here in California, property taxes on commercial property should certainly be much higher. The money lost on property taxes in the past thirty years due to the infamous Proposition 13 would have paid for our roads and bridges, a fine public education system, and a whole lot more. Property taxes are not the whole answer, though. For one thing, a lot of people don’t own property. Should they not have to pay taxes?

The income tax is a fairly effective way of generating government revenue. Everybody pays their fair share. It’s a progressive tax: Rich people pay a higher percentage than poor people, and that’s as it should be. The tax rate on the rich should be a lot higher than it is, and the rich have way too many loopholes to saunter through, but the basic idea is sound. The income tax is also a way of promoting social policies that the legislature feels are desirable. If you do something that is defined as good, you get a tax break. The tax code that we have is riddled with such stuff, to the point where it’s all but impossible to understand — but again, the basic idea is sound. Tax breaks are a useful way of promoting social good. If you contribute to a charity, for instance, you don’t have to pay tax on the money you contributed. That’s a simple and functional approach to encouraging charitable giving.

People who oppose the income tax usually think that the government can be drastically shrunk without painful consequences. They may even think this is a swell idea, because it will promote freedom. But you know, those armed gangs in Somalia? They have freedom. Freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Social responsibility is important too.

Do you know why there’s a Food & Drug Administration? Because in the late 19th century, babies were dying from tainted milk, that’s why. The milk was often shipped across state lines, so states and municipalities had no way to bring the baby killers to justice. The federal government had to step in. This was not necessary in Thomas Jefferson’s day, because long-distance transport of milk was not practical. In those days, if you wanted milk, you had a cow.

This is a fine example of the complexity of modern society, and of the need for strong government regulation. Yes, yes, I know — many government regulations are burdensome, and some are ill-advised or unnecessary. But if there are no government regulations, you get dead babies. Those who object strenuously to any sort of government regulation — they’re baby killers. Keep that in mind.

At bottom, those who object to the income tax are simply greedy. “I’ve got my money,” they whine. “I get to keep it! If the government tries to take it away, that’s theft!” No, it’s not theft. It’s that the government cares more about the well-being of your fellow human beings than you do, you greedy pig. The government quite regularly does a piss-poor job of spending our tax dollars, but that’s not an argument against taxation. If you don’t like how the money is being spent, we can have a debate on that, point by point. Housing the homeless? National defense? Prisons? Higher education? Inspection of meat-packing plants? Disease prevention?

The details of all these programs are complex and open to debate. Maybe we should be spending more money on primary education and less on prisons. But tax whiners don’t want an honest debate. They just want to keep their money and let the rest of the world suffer the consequences. They’re greedy children, and they have no idea how the real world functions.

But try to explain that to them. You might as well be talking to a wall.

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Religion and Banjo Playing

Posted by midiguru on January 8, 2015

I’m sure the banjo is a wonderful musical instrument. I’m not tempted to take it up, but I’m pretty sure the world is a better place because there are banjo players in it.

Banjo players don’t get a lot of respect, though. The banjo is on the short list of musical instruments that people like to make jokes about. Banjo, viola, trombone, accordion, and bagpipes — they all get abused from time to time.

Q: What’s the range of the viola? A: About 50 yards, if you have a good arm.

Q: What’s the difference between a chicken crossing the road and a trombone player crossing the road? A: The chicken is on his way to a gig.

I happen to play the cello. I only know one cello joke. (Q: What’s the difference between a cello and a coffin? A: The coffin has the dead guy on the inside.) There aren’t a lot of cello jokes, because the cello just happens to be widely admired.

Nonetheless, my enjoyment of playing the cello is, I’m sure, no different qualitatively from the enjoyment felt by a banjo player or an accordion player. It’s all good.

Here’s the terrible secret that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable: Religion is no different from playing the banjo or the accordion.

If it pleases you to paint yourself blue and dance naked around an oak tree, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to mumble phrases in Latin while sitting in a building with lots of stained glass windows, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to bow down toward Mecca five times a day while reciting phrases in Arabic, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to take peyote and sit in a sweat lodge hallucinating all night long, that’s terrific.

And it’s nobody’s business but your own. If you get tired of taking peyote and decide to start mumbling phrases in Latin, go for it.

If a banjo player got mad and started hitting people when they made banjo jokes, what would we call him? We’d call him an asshole. No matter what your lifestyle choice, you have to expect to get lampooned once in a while. If you’re a mature adult, you roll with it. You force yourself to chuckle politely, even if you think the joke wasn’t very funny.

Anyone who thinks their religion should never be criticized or ridiculed is an asshole. If they try to shut off the criticism, that’s a lot worse — but if you even think for a moment that your religion is so wonderful and admirable that it should be exempt from criticism or lampooning, you’re an asshole.

It’s gonna happen. Deal with it.

Posted in religion, society & culture | 13 Comments »

The Rot Starts at the Top

Posted by midiguru on December 5, 2014

According to a Huffington Post story this morning, President Obama’s response to yesterday’s widespread protest marches was this:

“President Barack Obama also weighed in, saying one of the chief issues at stake is ‘making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally.'”

No, Mr. President. People having confidence is not the issue. The issue is, the police are killing unarmed citizens (most of them African-American) as a result of minor infractions or for no reason at all — and getting away with it. That is the issue.

We can read Obama’s comment one of two ways. Possibly he doesn’t even know what the real issue is — but I doubt that. I think he knows. The problem is that he can’t say it out loud. He’s so embedded in the structure of wantonly brutal power in this country that he feels he has no alternative but to support that power structure by consciously, publicly, and cravenly misrepresenting what’s going on.

How can people have confidence in something that isn’t the case? They’ll have confidence only if they’re deluded and benumbed by a barrage of propaganda. What Obama is saying boils down to, “Our propaganda isn’t working.” Well, yeah, it isn’t. You got that right, dude.

What he conspicuously isn’t saying is, “The protesters are right. The system is fucked up, and we need to change it.”

Posted in politics, society & culture | 1 Comment »

Slice, but Don’t Dice

Posted by midiguru on October 28, 2014

This week’s big adventure was a trip to the emergency room Friday night, followed by an appendectomy in the wee hours of Saturday morning. Hey, I thought when I turned 40, appendicitis was one health risk I didn’t have to worry about anymore! Statistically that’s true, but statistics don’t apply to individuals.

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the things I’ve learned:

1) The team at Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek is excellent. Consistently first-class work.

2) They really do want to get you out of the hospital quickly (because hospitals are where the really nasty germs hang out). I was on my way home within 8 hours after surgery.

3) Health care seems to be a booming field for the non-Anglo job seeker. Most of the staff I encountered, other than the doctors, was Hispanic, Asian, or Pacific Islander.

4) If you aren’t fit to do anything else, watching the World Series is a great way to pass the time!

5) Getting in and out of bed without using my abdominal muscles is all but impossible. I’ve slept the last three nights in my recliner. Next month I think I’ll go out and buy one of those motorized recliners, to be prepared for next time.

6) Being able to let go of attachments (in the Buddhist sense, I suppose) is a handy skill to have before surgery. As an atheist, I have no illusions about surviving when something goes horribly wrong, as sooner or later something certainly will. So what’s the point of fear? If you’re afraid of surgery, all that happens is you mess with your own head. It doesn’t change the outcome.

7) Stool softeners are your friend.

8) Suspenders are great too. I can leave my trousers entirely unzipped, which is handy when you’re bloated.

9) After laparoscopic surgery, the incisions (three in my case) are covered with BandAids. Do not make the mistake of thinking that this means the procedure was minor. You’ve just had your abdominal cavity cut open.

10) You can play the sympathy card a few times after surgery, but try not to overdo it, okay?

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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.

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