Before I tell you about this thing that you should totally be outraged about, let me warn you that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. You can rant all you like and you can shake your fists at the gods but the gods are cold and unfeeling when it comes to this particular topic. The sexy rock and roll issue. Of international copyright law.
This week the Supreme Court heard the case of Golan vs. Holder, a case in which the plaintiffs are arguing to overturn a 1994 law passed by Congress which removed thousands of works of art from the public domain and returned them to copyright protection. An op-ed piece in the New York Times this week argued that this essentially robbed young artists of access to important works. I argue that it’s also just totes unfair. See, this challenge is what I like to call a “no-backsies” argument, which is an argument that I have been fervently in favor of since at least the 2nd grade. If you give me something, like the last Charleston Chew in your Halloween bag, for example, you cannot simply take it back if you later regret this generosity. Similarly, if I should find a way to foist a smushed Almond Joy on you during a diabetic stupor, you cannot later try to return said smushed Almond Joy to the aforementioned Halloween bag. That is pretty much what you learn in law school.
What kind of things would be removed from the public domain if the Supreme Court upholds the lower court decisions? Really cool things. Things like the Fritz Lang’s 1927 movie Metropolis and the complete works of Igor Stravinsky. Things that I personally don’t consume on a regular basis but that lots of people more cultured than me do and by god, if one single undergraduate film theory paper were to go unwritten in this country because of this law, that crime would be on the heads of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia.
This what I mean about our collective political impotence on the topic. Once any issue of importance gets to Supreme Court we are all essentially on the sidelines because those fuckers are there for life and could really give a Fritz Lang what we think of it. I’m basically comfortable with that, but only because I’m saving my energy for protests that could really change things. Like, circulating clever Cornel West quotes via facebook. I’m pretty sure that’s gonna dismantle the capitalist system by early next week.
Also, I’ve had to spend a lot of energy this week trying to decide if I should purchase new Feist album. Has anyone heard it? Is it good?
A friend under the age of 25 promises she can download it for me for free. She even offered to lie to me about how she got it so that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty. I don’t really believe that everyone should be giving away the things they made for free.
Although I am doing that. Right now. That money that you forked over today bought you a drink, not my legal insights and I won’t see a penny of it. And that’s cool. I’ll get paid in other ways. I’ll get the adoration of half-drunk crowd of the kind of people who chose to hide in a dark bar on this beautiful day. I’ll earn the kinds of cultural capital that can only be earned at a weekly live magazine.
Much like the work of Fritz Lang and Igor Stravinsky, I feel that my work belongs to the people. Here’s the single difference between me and Igor Stravinsky. He’s dead. He has been dead for 40 years. He doesn’t need the cash, he needs to be remembered. He needs to be part of the canon of Western music and to continue to influence young composers, good and bad, and to do that, they need to hear him.
I’m not quite sure how Ms. Leslie Feist of Canada feels about it. I kind of owe her some cash. I never paid for her last album, my buddy Anthony burned me a copy.
Here’s the difference between Igor Stravinsky and Feist. She appeared looking adorable under her bangs and sang her little song for the nice people at Apple computers and they put it on TV 1, 2, 3, 4, MILLION times and she made a fuckload of money. Though certainly not as much as Steve Jobs made. Because I can promise, he gave nothing away for free.
So, I guess, in conclusion, don’t give things away for free. Or do. But only if you’re Russian and canonical and dead. Or if you’re Canadian and are getting compensated in other ways. Or if you’re me and you’re just happy if people listen to you talk for a few minutes. Just don’t expect to get rich. That’s for the smart people who have better lawyers and a more sophisticated understanding of the “no backsies” doctrine. Just know that with your delicate artistic temperament comes an instinctive understanding that payment comes in lots of different currencies and hopefully you get the one that you need the most.
Also, during the justices’ questions, Chief Justice Roberts revealed that he is a closet Jimi Hendrix fan who got nervous about the possibility that changes in public domain law might prevent us from listening to Hendrix rocking out on the national anthem. So let’s all just take that image home with us. Chief Justice Roberts, in his smoky smoky chambers, weeping under the black light bulb and listening to Hendrix tear it up. Copyright law is SO rock and roll.