Saturday, November 20, 2010

I would prefer not...

Someone pointed me to this presentation by Lawrence Lessig, all about the present copyright mess and the use of existing materials in new creative work (in particular the question of fair use with creative methods based on recycling, parody, plundering, mashing, remixing and all that.) It's not a surprise that Lessig, a law professor, is addressing this as a primarily legal issue, and the fact that the everyday practices of a good portion of the population are not legal is a real problem, so Lessig's clear articulation of this problem is welcome.  (This topic is also fascinating as it is essentially a conflict between two liberal positions, the first which recognized that creators have a right to claim forms of meaningful ownership over their work, and the second which views access to forms of information as a universal and necessary — to the production of new work — right.)  

However, in the larger debate, it's once again disappointing to find that the legal and economic issues continue to drown out an ethical issue which I would frame in the following way: an artist (composer, writer, choreographer, etc.) may often — not always, but often — identify with his or her creative work in a deeply personal way, and may view the manipulation of their work by others as hurtful or injurious, with this view completely independent from any question of whether or not she or he receives compensation in whatever form or amount.   Unless the work in question can be identified immediately as political in nature or the artist in question can be identified unambiguously as a public political person, I happen to believe that it is a matter of simple decency, of respect for the private dignity of the person who has created the work as well as for the integrity of the work itself, that the creator has the right to say "no, I would prefer than my work not be used in this manner."*  As long as a creative artist is still alive and kicking, and has not had the last chance to revise her or his work or put it into a final form, I believe that it is a real question of character, completely independent of legal or economic questions, on the part of the re-user, whether or not that preference is respected.   

I hope that it is clear here that I am distinguishing between an artist asserting such a right as a personal or aesthetic concern — which I support entirely even if I should loathe the work (or the person who made it) — and an assertion of rights for purely economic motives.  I well understand that, in the real world, it is not always possible to make such a distinction, but I'm not altogether certain that that should even be a primary concern.  Rather this: wouldn't it be a preferable state of affairs if an honest attempt to determine whether the original artist has a preference one way or another were a standard social convention?   


* an echo here of Melville's Bartleby is intentional.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Lessig's book Remix was the subject of Molly Sheridan's first blogger book club, over at Mind the Gap. I read most of it and really had to resist the temptation to throw it against the wall. I am opposed to perpetual copyright, and I believe the current system is crazy, but his claim that re-use as soon as possible is a requirement of the current art scene struck me as disingenuous and willfully ignorant of how musical and visual artists operate.

His real purpose seems to be to protect from legal trouble kids who take and use others' songs and images in their own remixes. This dovetails nicely with what you say about character and decency: why aren't their parents teaching their children that they need to contact artists and obtain permission? That the fact that they can rip music to MP3 and do as they please with it doesn't mean they should?

Anonymous said...

ImprovFriday is a site devoted to the posting of new music created each week by members specifically for an IF event.

All pieces are posted under Creative Commons attribution 3.0 and many of the participants remix the pieces posted - and then post the resulting mashup as part of the same IF event.

Anyone who posts a piece but does not want it included in a mash - simply places NMC after the title. And this seems to work out pretty well.

Anyone posting a mix or mash from posted works has to identify the creators of the component pieces.

We've been doing this for over a year and a lot of good works have been created with no problems. IF is not a commercial or money-making operation, but even so it is one example of how the future can be made to work.

Kraig Grady said...

Decency is a very important point.
One has only to look at the case of Flutist and composer James Newton and his case against the Beastie Boys.
When he lost, he decided he would never play flute publicly again.
He was extremely hurt and no one seems to care or even acknowledge that the world has now lost an artist of such skill.
One time i heard my music use in a mash up i could only think that what they used made them sound better and myself worse.

Charles Shere said...

I agree that we should be able to prefer not to have our work recycled, parodied, plundered, mashed, remixed, and all that. There's another matter: the ease with which work can now be reproduced and published (on the Internet, via pirate recordings or copies) makes it inevitable that work can become corrupted, whether intentionally or purely accidentally. And how's the viewer/listener/web browser to know?