Copyright vs Copywrong

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Copyright vs Copywrong, the first in a two-part commentary on the diverse perspectives of intellectual copyright.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Music has always been about revolution, and it's comforting to know that in this age of political correctness, music still evokes a sense of righteous passion.

A few weeks ago, Producer Danger Mouse created his own musical experiment, morphing music from the rapper Jay Z's The Black Album with songs from The Beatles' White Album. Danger Mouse also included his own rhythms into the mix. The work was intended to be promotional, and not for sale. When an artist borrows a sample of another's work, for commercial or promotional use, he needs to get permission to license the track from the copyright owners, of which in this case, there are several. Jay Z was more than happy to supply permission, but EMI, which partially owns the copyright for The Beatles, was not, and access was denied. Historically, The Beatles retain their copyrights and rarely grant usage.

Nonetheless, the work was created, and titled The Grey Album.

A music activism group called Downhill Battle decided to create a marketing campaign of downloading The Grey Album to publicize their dissatisfaction about the current copyright laws in this country. Downhill Battle is unaffiliated with Danger Mouse.

They created Grey Tuesday as a day of coordinated disobedience, to protest EMI's cease-and-desist order against downloading The Grey Album. One hundred and seventy websites participated in hosting downloads of The Grey Album and the result was that more than 100,000 copies of the album were downloaded.

Since this story broke, I've had quite a few conversations with music professionals on the subject, and the tone is rarely moderate. It's a complex issue and given that Los Angeles is probably the center point for creative works, I'm going to dedicate two commentaries to this subject.

Some feel that Danger Mouse had no right to use another's work without permission. After all, if The Beatles created the work, shouldn't they be the ones to decide what happens to it?

Why should Danger Mouse profit from the works of others? And if the laws change and the right to use another's work without consent is granted, why would artists continue to focus on creating work, only to have it sliced and diced at whim?

On the other hand, some scholars argue that the intention of the copyright law was to make a secure limited time frame for artists to benefit from their creations. Since the inception of those laws, that time frame has been extended beyond the life of the creator. These proponents feel we're now holding back creativity for the sake of ownership to the artists' heirs, which was never the original intention of the law.

Still others feel that in this digital age, where so much is now available, we have far more opportunities to build exciting work that will experiment with previous art forms. If laws restrict us from even trying, how are we serving culture, and for what purpose?

Finally, many in the music business point out that DJs and re-mixers have been creating their own work for years, some without legal protection. These creations, referred to as &quotmash; ups" in the music business, are really new works of art a sort of sonic collage that should be allowed to exist on its own merit.

With technology pushing our perceptions of what music is and is not, it s sometimes hard to sort out who's right and who's wrong.

Right now there are several new organizations seeking to make change in the copyright laws. Next week, we'll examine some of these options. I am sure the copyright laws will continue to be a source of great debate for some time to come, and you can bet the attorneys are going to make a lot of money trying to sort it out.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW. By the way, this show is copyright protected.