“Nowadays to be intelligible is to be found out.” — Oscar WildeIn the wacky world of American politics, if you as an employer have a religious objection to paying for your employees’ contraceptives, it is you who is contemptuous of religious freedom.As the New York Times editorial board lectured a judge who thinks otherwise, “the […]
Socialism is the big lie of the 20th century. While it promised prosperity, equality, and security, it delivered poverty, misery, and tyranny. Equality was achieved only in the sense that everyone was equal in his or her misery.In the same way that a Ponzi scheme or chain letter initially succeeds but eventually collapses, socialism may […]
Six months ago, I stepped out from the shadows of the United States Government’s National Security Agency to stand in front of a journalist’s camera. I shared with the world evidence proving some governments are building a worldwide surveillance system to secretly track how we live, who we talk to, and what we say. I […]
I opened a new bottle of probiotics this morning, and it had one of those circular seals on the top. You know, the one that reads, “Sealed for your protection.”And that seal got me thinking… how much protection do we need? How much security is enough?How much homogenization, pasteurization, disinfection, national security, etc…. do we […]
Last spring, Barack Obama told the graduating class of Ohio State University:“Unfortunately, you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems… They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because […]
In the Huffington Post last week, Glenn Greenwald, Slate contributor Ryan Gallagher, and Ryan Grim had an investigative piece reporting that the NSA had been tracking the online porn-viewing habits of several Muslim leaders whom it viewed as radicals. A top-secret document shows that the agency was considering exposing these firebrands’ Internet dalliances as a […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
A few months ago at a demonstration against the president of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a Canadian citizen made the following claim: “We don’t have guns, we are not Americans, we are civilized.” A few days before, in early July, a train of the company had run away and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing […]
From the Tongue-In-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. — Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that her committee will hold a “major review into all intelligence-collection programs.” This surprising declaration followed the revelation, through documents leaked by government whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that the NSA has been listening to the […]
From the Tongue-in-Cheek Department of Laissez Faire Books…Washington, D.C. – The complex negotiations aimed at bringing a long-term solution to the federal government’s expenditure and debt problem have produced an unconventional proposal. “Although the solution only focuses on a tiny fraction of government expenditures,” declared President Barack Obama, “it is a step in the right […]
I’ve just spent a harrowing weekend reflecting on Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that came out in January 1776 and turned the public toward seeking independence from Britain. I say harrowing because the distance between the ideals found in this pamphlet and those of today’s America is so vast as to be nearly unrecognizable.The […]
It was a wild ride last week in the world of the Deep Web, that section of the Internet that requires special tools to access. The feds took down the site called Silk Road and claim to have arrested its founder and administrator. The news streams were filled with lurid tales of derring-do in this […]
Want to know just how invasive the state is going to get in the United States?Well, take a look across the pond.In terms of the large, invasive state, we English are way ahead of you guys. We’re a good 50 or more years further down the road to serfdom.Nineteenth-century Britain was about as glorious a […]
A tense drama unfolded this week with the virtual shutdown of vital government agencies: the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Labor Relations Board, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as many other such federal agencies. Without them, the Founding Fathers could not have imagined the republic.Even if fewer […]
Three months after Edward Snowden’s leaks began to reveal the extent of the U.S.’ mass surveillance program, “serious people” are beginning to make the case that it’s time for the outrage and indignation to subside and give way to a “national conversation” about the future of surveillance. So has the moment come for us to […]
A sixth-grader has been suspended for drawing an inappropriate picture. The drawing did not include any gun, but showed a checkpoint backed up by a SWAT team carrying flower pots while an unarmed drone hovered above.The suspended girl, whose name is kept secret at the request of her family, said she “just wanted to draw […]
The second part of this two-part article reveals an untold part of the story about how they were stopped last time. And shows how, if not again stopped, how it could lead to a fundamental loss of civil rights and freedom on the Internet.The offending legislation was barreling down the track, seemingly — even in […]
Two years ago, Hollywood, no kidding, masterminded a plot to, in effect, steal the Internet (by criminalizing certain conduct, booby trapping the Web in ways that few non-mega-corporations could cope with). There are signs, as perceptively flagged by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that the perps are back at it. We should care.This two-part article reveals […]
It has now been nearly two centuries since French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and compared American democracy to the French variety. The Martian asked his Earth correspondent to redo the comparison.The typical Frenchman thinks that Paris is the center of the universe, life without a baguette is not worth living, France is […]
I was at the Canadian border, headed toward the freedom that exists a few feet beyond the last security check. I was gently waved down a side corridor.Ninety minutes later, I was let go, but not before something truly alarming happened. I’m pretty sure that the Canadian government captured a mirrored version of my smartphone […]
Fort Meade, MD – The United States, the least unfree country on Earth, is fighting a major invasion of the Blueshirts.The most visible Blueshirts constitute a 50,000-plus army that occupies all the airports in America. Recognizable by their blue shirts and their inquisitive eyes and hands, they search and humiliate all Americans trying to leave […]
Sometimes, the news of the day causes me to say, “Huh?” The New York Times revelations last month about NSA programs and activities to enhance the agency’s ability to spy on ordinary citizens prompts today’s “Huh?” Who knew that our every phone call, Internet post and tweet is being recorded by the government?I have operated […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Oh, how the media love a good strike. Look at these fast-food workers and peasants standing up to the owners of capital! They aren’t going to take the oppression anymore. The suits in the boardrooms had better shape up and stop hoarding all that money. They need to give it up to the men and […]
Like all great historical ideas, the project of licensing journalists so that they may benefit from the First Amendment was born in a very modest place. In fact, it began in the most modest of all places: the brain of Dianne Feinstein, U.S. senator from California.The new law, which was just adopted by Congress and […]
The position that there need be a state is too often taken for granted.The main body of Sartwell’s book Against the State is dedicated to destroying the arguments for a state from the likes of Hobbes, Rousseau and Hegel. In fact, one thing that becomes crystal clear in reading Sartwell’s book is how bad the […]
Crispin Sartwell is someone you should know. He is doing important work in recovering forgotten greats in America’s anti-authoritarian tradition. Among other works, he’s put forward a lean and powerful book titled Against the State.In what follows, you’ll see why he’s my favorite living philosopher. Sartwell will take you on an intellectual tour de force […]
A crucial feature of the evolution of the social order is the capacity to use what’s good and improve on it, and throw out what’s bad. But people have to be free to do this. The government and lots of industry groups don’t think they should be.
A recent case underscores the point.
FoxTV recently used what’s good, putting Jonathan Coulton’s remix of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” on its show Glee. Is this stealing? Is this wrong? Coulton apparently thought so.
Coulton complained on Twitter that Fox “never even contacted me.”
There seem to be a couple of assumptions being made by Coulton and others commenting on the case: one about copyright law and another about right and wrong.
The copyright issues are laid out in a Slate piece, but somewhat mangled:
“An arrangement like Coulton’s is technically called a ‘derivative work,’ because it is based on a pre-existing ‘original work’ (Sir Mix-A-Lot’s original rap song). In order to create his arrangement and sell it, Coulton obtained a compulsory (or ‘statutory’) license from the copyright holder, the Harry Fox Agency. Coulton himself does not own the rights to Mix-A-Lot’s lyrics, of course, but according to the U.S. Copyright Office, ‘the copyright of a derivative work covers… the additions, changes, or other new material appearing for the first time in the work.’
“Even if Fox got permission for the Glee cover of ‘Baby Got Back’ from Harry Fox (which they undoubtedly did), they are also required to seek permission from Coulton for use of his ‘additions’ — chords, phrasings, rhythms, and so on — that make his arrangement unique (and choirboy friendly). Of course, he’d have to prove in court that the two arrangements are, in fact, identical, but to our (admittedly nonexpert) ears, there’s very little question. Fox owes Coulton at least an apology — and probably a check, as well.”
This analysis is not quite right (I believe): Glee‘s cover of Coulton’s version need not be identical to infringe on his copyright; after all, Coulton’s own cover of the original version was not identical to it, yet still required a license in order to avoid copyright infringement.
The assumption here is that Fox has infringed copyright and has done something wrong — though it’s not clear exactly what the wrong was: Coulton’s complaint implies that Fox’s mistake was not contacting him first; others imply that using the song without giving him attribution was wrong (see, e.g., the comments by Andy Ihnatko in the most recent episode of This Week in Tech [TWiT]). Mike Masnick of Techdirt implies Fox has been a “bad actor” here.
As for the copyright issue: As Slate notes, Glee very likely already got a license for use of the original, just as Coulton himself did. I am not clear whether they might have also acquired a compulsory license for Coulton’s arrangement without Coulton himself being contacted, but even if they did not, as suggested on TWiT, their tactic might be to use the song and wait for people to ding them afterward, at which time they would pay the requested royalty.
In any case, copyright is itself wrong, so even if there was copyright infringement here, that does not imply that anything “wrong” was done.
As for complaints that Coulton did not receive attribution: Well, as far as I know, the Glee episode featuring the song has not even aired yet, so it’s not yet known whether there is attribution in the credits.
But in my view, even if there was no attribution credit given, there is still nothing wrong whatsoever here. It’s not as if the producers of Glee are being dishonest and claiming to have come up with the arrangement on their own; there is no “plagiarism” going on here.
In the TWiT discussion about this — which, ironically, follows a discussion of how a prosecutor’s use of copyright law threats against Aaron Swartz drove him to suicide — Andy Ihnatko bizarrely claims that this has somehow harmed Coulton, even though Glee is seen by millions and this is no doubt great PR for the marginally known Coulton.
Why? Because if Coulton performs his own version of the song in a concert, people might think he copied it from Glee. Even… though… we all know that they copied it from him.
I don’t get this reasoning. Does Ihnatko think only he knows about this? He is discussing a public story. That is, Coulton’s authorship of the version is already publicly known. Coulton had no trouble demonstrating this. (This is also one reason why copyright proponents’ worries about plagiarism are off-base. Not only does plagiarism have nothing to do with copyright infringement, but plagiarism is not a major problem; anyone plagiarized will easily be able to prove they authored the work first.)
In a free society with no copyright law, in my view, there is no ethical or moral obligation whatsoever to ask permission of an artist to use or copy or reuse or remix their earlier work, nor even to provide attribution credit. The only obligation is to be honest: to not dishonestly claim original authorship. But merely singing or performing someone else’s song does not mean the singer is claiming to have originated it.
As for attribution: Sometimes it’s called for, according to context, just as footnotes are expected in a law review article but not in an email to a friend. But this is more a matter of scholarly protocols than morals.
Copyright law is not only evil for the direct damage it does to individual lives, but because it has distorted our entire culture and makes people think of copying as wrong. It is not wrong at all. Copying is good. Learning is good. There is nothing whatsoever wrong with learning, emulating, remixing, and competing. Copyright law has confused the whole world, deluded almost everyone into thinking something harmless and natural is somehow icky and bad. How sad.
The whole history of the rise of art, from the ancient world until the 20th century, was all about learning from others, copying them, and improving on their work. That’s how progress occurs, not only in art, but in technology, literature, finance, and in the whole of civilization. This culture of learning is making a huge comeback, despite government’s attempts to stop it. That’s the same thing as saying that freedom itself is making a comeback.