Matter, Energy, and Life of Michael A. Castello.

Free Culture’s Worst-Case Scenarios

Many of my budding artist friends appreciate their obscurity problem and want to share their work without the encumbrance of copyright. Yet they are worried about others using it for commercial purposes, the same fear that drives people like Cory Doctorow into the arms of Creative Commons licenses. This idea of somebody else, maybe a corporation making all kinds of money from uncredited use of their work seems to represent a worst-case scenario for artists—thus, if we can find ways for even these types of situations to work to their advantage, everything else is simple.

Here’s one such scenario: A budding musical artist writes and records a song, putting it into the Public Domain/copyleft on his website for his fans to share and enjoy how they wish. Somebody from a major television network finds the song and use it in a new show without even giving credit. The show goes on to become a hit, making the network millions while the musician remains poor. How should he respond?

First of all one has to understand that it is highly unlikely that the show was successful solely because of the inclusion of the song. Commercial success does not suddenly mean money is owed. While it may have been nice to get free money (royalties and the like) from repeated airings of the show, it is not that but the lack of proper attribution that is the real cause for frustration.

Assuming the network will never deign to correct its mistake, I think one of the most important things to do is use the internet connect the song and show back to the artist. If the song really brought that many people to the show, they are likely to start searching for it online. Something like a post on the artist’s website will show up clearly in search results, and it gives the artist an opportunity to direct new visitors to free downloads of the song, concert dates, and his other reasons to buy (perhaps tweaked to appeal to fans of the show). It’s also a good idea to have a way for people to send donations.

Granted, these things aren’t going to make you rich, but then neither are royalties. What it does do is save the artist tons of money in legal costs trying to fight the network, and help build his name as somebody who creates quality music and expand his fanbase – all despite the network’s “oversight” in crediting the person behind the work.

Noncommercial restrictions are unnecessary; commercial use isn’t all that different from filesharing. A lot of the potential difficulties we’re seeing are only salient because we’re in between old and new ways of doing things. Methods that work to promote yourself as a creator are valid whether or not the person sharing what you’ve done is charging for it. For example, the way the people behind the movie Ink responded to its filesharing popularity was excellent, accepting donations and selling all kinds of unique physical objects. What they’re doing works just as well if somebody is selling tickets to showings of the movie.

I’m interested to hear what budding artists think of these ideas—it’s new territory for me too.

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3 responses to “Free Culture’s Worst-Case Scenarios”

  1. Reader Avatar

    There seems to be a little confusion between public domain and copy left.

    “A budding musical artist writes and records a song, putting it into the Public Domain/copyleft on his website for . . .”

    Also, your arguments seem to be about copy right in general, and would seem to suggest that it is not necessary to copy right any artistic material.

    1. SteelWolf Avatar

      It’s true that copyleft and the public domain are not the same thing; however, in this case (where we are looking at what you are explicitly allowing others to do) the end result is identical.

      Also, you are correct: It is not necessary to copyright any artistic material. In fact, it is likely better to avoid copyright altogether.

  2. […] Classes and my lab rotation are now in progress, forcibly applying structure to my time.  In lieu of more interesting developments, I saw this post on Techdirt. A band (that I happen to enjoy) denied permission to use their songs in television commercials, so the company created “sound alike” songs to use instead. Far better than crying to copyright or imaginary property, their response is more like what I talked about a few weeks ago. […]

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