February 13th, 2010

forums, me, non blog

[FORUM] What do you think of copyright and culture?

Andrew Barton did a pretty good job of beating me to my own reaction to the recent court decision against Men Without Hats. Forgive me, please, my extended quote, but it's important.

Back in 1981, the band Men at Work found they had a hit on their hands with the song "Down Under," an intensely Australian piece that's since become a patriotic song. Incorporated within it is a short but memorable flute riff, and it's that riff that has been causing problems now. On Thursday, an Australian court ruled that Men at Work plagiarized this riff from "Kookaburra," an Australian folk tune written by Marion Sinclar and which was the winner of a 1934 Girl Guides competition. Today, of course, it's owned by a corporation, Larrikin Music, and corporations aren't too shy to release the legal hounds.

I'll admit that, on the face of it, it's understandable. I've listened to "Down Under" and "Kookaburra" both, and the flute riff does significantly echo the opening of the earlier song. The problem in this case, though, is that there seems to have been no thought by the ruling judge about the implications of this. I've thought about them, and I certainly don't like them.

[. . . W]hat this really comes down to is yet another assault on the perceived public domain. The average person has always had a different view of copyright than the law does. Even a song as basic and fundamental as "Happy Birthday" is thought to be under copyright - not, of course, that anyone actually cares, and any serious attempt by a claimed copyright holder to assert rights would practically fire off a revolution. Songs like these are held by people as part of the culture and the common trust, something that is owned by everyone and no one, regardless of what corporations might think.

Creativity has always been about incorporation and remixing. It's not possible, after tens of thousands of years of human culture, to create something truly original anymore. Memes migrate through minds and are installed as patchwork into new creations. When I see cases like this, I see corporations trying to build paddock fences around these concepts and keep them out of the common. It's a concept that can't be allowed to continue, or our culture will inevitably be the poorer for it. Copyright is a means to help ensure that artists can make a living on their work - it was never meant to be a method to keep essential cultural memes under lock and key.

Without quotes--properly cited, of course, whether by name and publication or just implicitly by hyperlink--it'd be impossible for me to have a blog, at least this sort of links-dependent blog. If the current copyright system would prevent the sort of free exchange and intertextuality and bricolage that defines any dynamic popular culture, then it's a bad one. Or, am I completely wrong on this?