Thursday, July 15, 2010

American Society of Curmudgeons, Assholes and Paternalists (ASCAP)

Catch Me Now I'm Falling - The Kinks (mp3)
Attitude - The Kinks (mp3)

If you are remotely educated into the actual world of The Music Business (TM) -- say you know someone fighting for a record deal, or you write a music blog, or you have ever investigated why it took forever for Freaks & Geeks to make it to DVD, or you obsessively follow any band or artist -- then I almost guarantee you that you have an entirely different opinion of copyright law than the rest of America.

And here’s another thing you’d know: the bigger the organization or company that claims to represent your rights and your freedoms, the more likely that organization is a leviathan more interested in feeding its very large and cavernous belly than it is in looking out for li’l ol’ you.

It’s a story as old as Jerry Maguire. OK, even older. As old as the NEA, a group that once sincerely fought to protect a very deserving collective of teachers that became obsessed with protecting idiots and failures at the expense of every teacher’s reputation. (Rejected NEA slogan, by a 17-15 vote: “If we’ll fight tooth and nail for the apathetic retards in your profession, just imagine how hard we’ll fight for YOU!”)

Whenever the teaching profession seeks comfort that their representatives and their public perception could be much worse, they look to one place: The Music Business (TM).

Trust me on this one, the idiots running The Music Business make the folks at BP look like Gordon Gecko, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and all those dudes in Danny Ocean’s famous 11. The Music Business is run, in all ways, by idiots who were better-suited for the oil industry, because their best skill is digging large holes into the ground and tossing talent into them.

And with that, I offer you an open letter from the amazing Lawrence Lessig, a man I’ve had the wonderful privilege of hearing speak in person, and a man who actually does have the best interests of artists and musicians and creative types the country over. His target of disappointment? The incompetent, oversized, and bungling ASCAP.

His letter:
The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) has launched a campaign to raise money from its members to hire lobbyists to protect them against the dangers of "Copyleft." Groups such as Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are "mobilizing," ASCAP describes in a letter to its members, "to promote 'Copyleft' in order to undermine our 'Copyright.'" "[O]ur opponents are influencing Congress against the interests of music creators," ASCAP warns. Indeed, as the letter ominously predicts, this is ASCAP's "biggest challenge ever." (Historians of BMI might be a bit surprised about that claim in particular.)

As a founding board member of two of those three organizations, and former board member of the third, I guess I should be proud that a 96 year old organization would be so terrified of our work. And I would be — if there were anything in this fundraising pitch that was actually true.

But there is not. Creative Commons, Public Knowledge and EFF are not aiming to "undermine" copyright; they are not spreading the word that "music should be free"; and there is certainly not yet any rally within Congress in favor of any of the issues that these groups do push.

I know Creative Commons best, so let me address ASCAP's charges as they apply to it.

Creative Commons is a nonprofit that provides copyright licenses pro bono to artists and creators so that they can offer their creative work with the freedom they intend it to carry. (Think not "All Rights Reserved" but "Some Rights Reserved.") Using these licenses, a musician might allow his music to be used for noncommercial purposes (by kids making a video, for example, or for sharing among friends), so long as attribution to the artist is kept. Or an academic might permit her work to be shared for whatever purpose, again, so long as attribution is maintained. Or a collaborative project such as a wiki might guarantee that the collective work of the thousands who have built the wiki remains free for everyone forever. Hundreds of millions of digital objects — from music to video to photographs to architectural designs to scientific journals to teachers lesson plans to books and to blogs — have been licensed in this way, and by an extraordinarily diverse range of creators or rights holders —  including Nine Inch Nails, Beastie Boys, Youssou N'Dour, Curt Smith, David Byrne, Radiohead, Jonathan Coulton, Kristin Hersh, and Snoop Dogg, as well as Wikipedia and the White House.

These licenses are, obviously, copyright licenses. They depend upon a firm and reliable system of copyright for them to work. Thus CC could have no interest in "undermining" the very system the licenses depend upon — copyright. Indeed, to the contrary, CC only aims to strengthen the objectives of copyright, by giving the creators a simpler way to exercise their rights.

These licenses are also (and also obviously) voluntary. CC has never argued that anyone should waive any of their rights. (I've been less tolerant towards academics, but I have never said that any artist is morally obligated to waive any right granted to her by copyright.)

And finally, these licenses reveal no objective to make "music free." Nine Inch Nails, for example, have earned record sales from songs licensed under Creative Commons licenses.

Instead, the only thing Creative Commons wants to make free is artists — free to choose how best to license their creative work. This is one value we firmly believe in — that copyright was meant for authors, and that authors should have the control over their copyright.

This isn't the first time that ASCAP has misrepresented the objectives of our organization. But could we make it the last? We have no objection to collective rights organizations: They too were an innovative and voluntary solution (in America at least) to a challenging copyright problem created by new technologies. And I at least am confident that collecting rights societies will be a part of the copyright landscape forever.

So here's my challenge, ASCAP President Paul Williams: Let's address our differences the way decent souls do. In a debate. I'm a big fan of yours, and If you'll grant me the permission, I'd even be willing to sing one of your songs (or not) if you'll accept my challenge of a debate. We could ask the New York Public Library to host the event. I am willing to do whatever I can to accommodate your schedule.

Let's meet and address these perceived differences with honesty and good faith. No doubt we have disagreements (for instance, I love rainy days, and Mondays rarely get me down). But on the issues that your organization and mine care about, there should be no difference worthy of an attack.

Meanwhile, you can read more about Creative Commons here, and support its response to the ASCAP campaign here.
The story of America, of humanity, of growth, is the story of people with grand ideas and heroic, unselfish hopes, people eager to watch our backs and look out for us and help us all be better, becoming people looking out for their own puffy and oversized asses. Our history is a never-ending tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who at some point in his youth was a decent, generous, kind human being, who grew too big and successful for his own good, lost his way up his own ass, and became... well... Scrooge.

ASCAP? You, my friends, are Scrooge. You might at some point in your history have been good and decent. But you are now in serious need of ghosts coming and haunting you into liberation or death. Either option is fine by me.

The music business deserves every negative comparison it gets, and it deserves to die a slow and painful death. And I can only hope, at some point down the line, some well-intentioned and good-hearted collective can come around and, at least for a decade or two, get the priorities right.

I bet... if someone did that, they might even be able to turn around all those embarrassing and pathetic falling numbers.


cinderkeys said...

So ASCAP is attacking Creative Commons and the like? I hadn't heard about this, but I can't say I'm surprised.

I'm a musician. Here's my band's experience with ASCAP, in two installments:

Thwarted by ASCAP
ASCAP: Legalized Mafia?

Bob said...

I like the little dig you slip in teachers' unions, and would use this chance to point out that Obama and Arne Duncan have already torn down some of the walls that makes it hard to fire an incompetent teacher. Of course, that's another one of those changes that won't necessarily endear Obama to his base. As the man's polls slip, he sure is tackling a lot of issues that need tackling. Go, go, Mr. Hopey-Changey!

Bob said...

i wrote this comment from my kindle. yippee

kuyr53e said...
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