Denounced by the Lawyer for Rush

Now that doesn’t happen every day.

Yesterday I was part of a panel on sampling and copyright called “Cramping My Sampling” at the Pop and Policy Conference. The panel was set up for each person to give a 5-7 minute spiel and then the panelists talked with one another, after which the floor was opened to questions. It’s not a traditional academic conference in that it mixed industry people with academics, which means that the normal modes of discourse (for academics, for industry people), get mixed up.

So the panel goes like this: The musicians were the stars and the rest of us were, well, the opening act even though we went afterward. Buck65 and Scratch Bastid begin and discuss their forthcoming album. Essentially, they delivered a record full of sampled material, it became clear that it would be prohibitively expensive to clear all the samples, and so they hired musicians to either replay the samples note for note or to create snippets of music with the feel of the samples but just different enough. They played the results, which were quite interesting. Needless to say, they criticized the way in which copyright law forced them to remake the album (or pay out huge sums of money), though Buck65 said that in some cases, it also afforded them new creative opportunities.

Next up was Owen Chapman who talked about his doctoral dissertation, which involved discussing sampling with a group of local artists, and then collaborating with them to produce a CD based on a small set of samples, some of which were uncleared recorded material and some of which were field recordings. After him was Susan Abramovitch, a lawyer at Gowllings, and she did a great job of explaining the legalities (and the ambiguities) of sampling law.

Then there was my turn. I cannot objectively relate my presentation, and indeed it may have been less clear than what I am about to type, but there were two basic points:

1. It’s fine to talk about “the rights of the artists” or “the right of the artist to be compensated” but often, the owner of the copyright is not that artist. In those cases, when we are talking about ethics, rather than legality, it is useful to distinguish artists from others who hold copyrights, most notably, corporations and conglomerates who are not usually particularly interested in music, and often are simply interested in extracting the maximum possible profit for themselves.

2. Current copyright law is actually damaging to projects of cultural heritage. This point is essentially taken from a talk given by Mark Katz. The argument is this: an artform like mashup would normally be the thing documented and catalogued by cultural institutions (like the libarary of congress, for instance). However, because of its dubious legality, it exists mostly online, and will probably not be preserved. This is a Bad Thing because we are privileging commerce over culture.

Simple points, and anyway, I was put on the panel to raise big picture issues. So I did. The lawyers, whom I did not particularly think I was attacking, were not at all happy.

Susan said I was totally off base because most of her clients are individuals, like Randy Bachman, who own the rights to their own music, and the power of the labels has been in decline for a few years. She suggested that my anticorporate position was “quaint and old fashioned.” While I don’t dispute either statement, I would be interested to know whether a) most of the world’s music copyrights are now held by individuals and b) whether most of the music that’s sampled is owned by individuals. I don’t know, but I would be awfully surprised if that was the case.

After some more discussion, a man toward the back begins to speak. He starts out by saying that he finds it “offensive that someone would say that artists shouldn’t be compensated for their work.” Which nobody on the panel said. He then goes on to announce that he represents Rush — “Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson and Neal Peart” [1] and that Rush doesn’t like it when people try to sample their work and they should be able to refuse all comers if they don’t like the use to which the work is put. He also really didn’t like the anticorporate stuff, which he called a “rant” — if companies own the work, or people are “stupid” (his word, not mine, after the panel) and sign away their rights, the owner of the rights should be entitled to full compensation, to the full extent of the law, whatever the case, for whatever reason — since they put up the money — full stop.

I think it’s fair to say that we disagree on basic principles. If you applied his rule of full compensation, no matter what, and (worse) full control over all future uses of a copyrighted work across the arts, literature, music, poetry and philosophy, you could basically wipe out most of the interesting Western culture of the 20th century. I also don’t think commerce and economic interest trump all other rights or the common good.

In the end, it’s a pretty clichéd and routine argument that’s been had thousands of times before in other places. Neither he nor I said anything original.

But I don’t get the opportunity to be denounced by a man claiming to represent the band Rush every day. I’ll be sure to think about the damage sampling might wreak upon Rush next time I spin By-Tor and the Snow Dog on my record player.

Also check out this excellent commentary on the conference.

[1] One weird thing to this academic at the conference was the propensity of people (okay, almost entirely men) to begin their comments by reciting their credentials, which usually involve album credits or associations with other famous people. Then again, to begin my talk by saying “I’m one of the world’s recognized experts on the ear phonautograph” isn’t as fun, is it? So maybe there’s a reason.