Water Mosaic echoes from home

pondering the mysteries, simplicity, and humor of life

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Who Own's Culture

On April 7th, the New York Public Library was the site of a dialogue between Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. The title of their conversation was Who Owns Culture. I didn’t attend this venue but read several articles relating to the event. In regards to the "illegal" free downloading of music, it seems as if Napster’s family tree includes such historical items as the player piano, Edison’s wax phonograms radio, Xerox machines, and the Sony Betamax, the world’s first stand-alone VCR, each of which raised questions of duplicating artistic products. In each case, the law sided with the “pirates,” finding a way to strike a balance between the users of new technology and the rights of songwriters and performers.

Now our “friends” on the bench have deserted the latest pirates. Instead of acknowledging the unstoppable force that is the Internet and allowing the law to adapt accordingly, Lessig observed that there is a “demand imposed by the law that the technology fit the old law,” driven by corporate interests. Over the past few years, the record industry has filed lawsuits against peer-to-peer file shares, 7,704 to be exact. The film industry, following in their footsteps, is about ready to unleash a wave of lawsuits among movie file sharers. Even Jack Valenti, of the Motion Picture Association of America equates opposing piracy with combating terrorism. Is this hyper-intense opposition to new technologies as tantamount to “DDT spraying to kill a gnat?”

If you know much about Wilco, you know that they are somewhat “pioneers” to this whole Internet streaming, downloading music idea. After being dropped by their label, they decided to use the Internet almost as a last effort to make their music available to the public. Once it was out, they toured and realized that many in the audience were singing along with these “unreleased” songs. Ultimately, they resigned with Nonesuch Records, a subsidiary to their former label, and the album that was previously streamed now has gone gold (sold over 500,000 units). So for Tweedy, he would rather have people listen to his art and dislike it, than have people who can’t listen because they can’t afford it.

What I enjoyed about their dialogue was something Tweedy said. “Once you create something and you’ve made it, it doesn’t exist except in the consciousness of the listener….That’s were it is finished. When someone downloads a piece of music, its just that until the listener puts that music back together with their own ears, their own minds and subjective experiences. Each one of you [listener] has about 50% investment in any event of music making. If you listen, you are a part of it.”So I guess the question of who own's culture would be "us."

Lessig makes a valid point that kids indulging in new opportunities born of new technologies need an environment conducive to creation. I’ve had Copyright Law in college and it was an extremely sticky subject at the time. Copyright Law in and of itself is sticky. I don’t think it has any gotten clearer. Are artists starving because their music is online for free? Maybe, I don’t know. I do know that the Internet has introduced me to several artists that I would have never heard of and I enjoy very much, therefore I have bought their albums. One thing I do know is that if Metallica and Dr. Dre (wealthy musicians) are whining about their music being “illegally” downloaded and they are not getting paid, then something is definitely wrong with that picture.