OK GO’s breakout success came after an extremely popular homemade music video was uploaded onto YouTube. Quirky music videos became their shtick. Remarkably, when they released a new(-ish) single, “This Too Shall Pass,” their label, EMI, decided to make the video un-embeddable and issue takedown notices when it popped up on YouTube. The band made them reverse the decision, but it’s an example of when idiot executives fail to understand that what looks good in the short term might not work out in the long term.
I’ve been mulling over this Boston Globe article about copyright enforcement for a few weeks. Copyright enforcement is a tricky issue. First, it’s important to recognize the conflict between thinking of copyright as a property right (artists create something and they have the right to sell it any way that they want) and as a tool for encouraging art (the original language in the US Constitution that covers copyright gives authority to Congress like this: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”). These two ideas are not necessarily opposed, but the internet and modern artistic trends seem designed to poke at the gaps between those two perspectives. For example, if you view copyright as a property right, it’s entirely reasonable to ask that mash-up artists get permission to use samples in their releases. The musicians who created the sample own it, and can allow others to use it as they see fit. On the other hand, if you wanted to promote the progress of art, you would want to break down those barriers.
Other people have written at length about this divide with more depth and understanding than I have, but I was intrigued by another aspect of music and copyright, which is that it is much easier and simpler to strike a correct balance between content creators and those who wish to use their work in an honor-based system than in a legal system. If musicians act in an honorable way, it’s not a big deal that your songs are covered by people that pose no financial threat to you. No matter what, The Eagles will always have more fans than The Eagles Tribute Band. From the other direction, independent gigging musicians understand that it’s a douchbag move to cover a song by somebody in the same position as yourself. If you’re going to perform covers, perform songs by well known and successful acts.
There’s another category of copyright offense that I don’t understand at all. The article (which is pretty good, if that will make you click through) also mentions crackdowns on open mic and variety nights. This is completely stupid, and like the Teachout article last-ish week, it’s an example of people in a position of power (the RIAA in the music industry, Teachout’s audience at the WSJ) that either have no interest in the long-term prospects of their fields or lack the vision to see what the long term consequences of their actions are. Discouraging people from performing because they either don’t have entry-level venues or they worry about harassment from the RIAA hurts music. Period. By acting in such a foolish and thuggish way, they’re diminishing their future power.
Good for music?