Comments on Copyright Issues

It is always interesting to me that the people who argue for relaxed copyright laws or their non-existence are often not creators. As a composer, I spend my life creating music that I pour countless hours and endless dollars into. Unlike Madonna, much of the creative work done by American artists such as myself, whether it is pop-oriented or not, does not have a guaranteed profit built into it. It is not made for the sake of appealing to mass markets, just the same way a gourmet restaurant might not create dishes that are meant to appeal to fast food customers. Having said this, it should be obvious that modern, creative artists definitely need and want to make some sort of a return on their massive investment in time and resources in order to keep creating.

One problem with critics of current copyright laws is that they clump pop artists with artists whose goal is to create new, interesting art. Yes, "pop" and "serious" creativity are often intertwined, but there is generally a difference: Britney Spears is appealing (or appalling?) to millions, but she is not "cutting edge." To many of us, there is a definite lack of depth to her songs: after carefully listening to her songs a few times, you will probably not discover a "deeper" meaning than what is already apparent. This does not diminish the popularity of her songs, but it does show that mass consumption is not necessarily related to quality or longevity.

Although creating music and other works of art may seem fun because it might be fun to listen to, do not be fooled: musicians spend many months, if not years, creating music that often ends up being recorded. Recording music is very expensive and often costs an enormous amount of money just to produce a single CD. Of course, this does not even account for the massive amount of money that record companies spend just to advertise a CD just so you know it exists. Recording artists absolutely should have protection from thieves posing as cultural saviors. Otherwise, these artists will not be able to afford to make music in the first place.

It is important to realize that there is a difference between quoting or incorporating portions of someone's work into your own, and altering it with minor modifications and calling it your own. I am all for having ideas quoted or re-appropriated—within reason—in someone else's work. However, to give someone the complete rights to do with my music as they please after a period of say, five years, is outrageous. We have the technology to give artists the ability to make a living and continue creating, and we should absolutely embrace those technologies. Copyright terms for the duration of the life of the creator, and for a reasonable period beyond that (the keyword here being "reasonable") are key to continued artistic productivity and encouragement. Artists love creating new works, but they also need to survive and pay the bills.

People often ignore the fact that extended copyright durations are not just in place for the artist, but also for the artist’s family. This is important: many artists regrettably put their families through very tough financial times while struggling to create work that they will not immediately be compensated for. In the case of "concert music" creators such as myself, there is a definite lag time between the date of creation of the work and receiving any financial compensation. Yes, many works by composers are commissioned, but often times, composers write music for very little initial payment or for nothing at all. Their work may be appreciated many years—and often decades—after it is created. Therefore, if they can eventually be financially compensated, they should be. As a composer, I continue to create new works that I hope will someday pay for themselves by being played and recorded, but this may not happen for a long time.

I am intrigued by a recent article in the New York Times on the lawyer/author Lawrence Lessig by Daniel Zalewski entitled ‘The Future of Ideas’: Protecting the Old With Copyright Law (New York Times, January 6, 2002). In this article, Zalewski says that Lessig, in his book, The Future of Ideas, argues for "limited protection." Lessig not only supposedly suggests that patents and copyrights should have short, renewable 5-year terms instead of the current 90- to 150-year terms, but also suggests that "paying a licensing fee should be all it takes to secure unfettered access to another artist's work."

Here is an interesting hypothetical situation: what if Lessig’s book becomes a classic? Therefore, in ten years, people will still be buying it and it may even be a best seller and/or required reading in numerous classes across the world. How would Lessig and his publisher feel if in the near future, someone subtly alters his book in order to create something "new" or to improve it? Let us call it, for lack of a better title, "The New Future of Ideas." Of course, this would supposedly be OK and the new author would be home free to do as he or she pleases, since the creator of the "new work" paid a one-time licensing fee. Even Zalewski states that "somebody should do a fan edit" of Lessig’s book. What if this potential "fan editor" is actually an author aligned with a multi-national publisher who, within a month of the original publish date of the original book, will be able to publish and distribute millions of copies of this new fan edited book for profit?

To add fuel to the fire, how will Lessig and his publisher feel if his "non-fan edited" book is re-posted in its entirety on the Internet for mass downloading? Frankly, many people would probably rather read it for free than buy it from a bookseller. The only major difference here between a music recording and a book is convenience and packaging: it is still generally more appealing and convenient to but an entire book in physical form. Music, however, fits quite conveniently on an MP3 player.

It is obvious to the General American public that if someone takes the time to scan hundreds of book pages and then post them for free on the Internet, they are committing a crime. It is less obvious if someone "rips" a sound file off of a CD and posts it on a file-sharing service. After all, it only takes a few minutes to copy and distribute a sound file, and it is very easy to do, so to some consumers, it seems OK. However, it is not OK. In short, the ease of committing the crime does not make it less of a crime. This is especially true of "services" or conduits like Napster that offer and encourage the mass sharing of copyrighted music for free.

As for Napster and its clones, I have a hunch that increased CD sales are not as linked to the free distribution of MP3 files as some would like you to believe. I think that CD sales have increased due to the availability of cheap CD’s through services such as Columbia House, and also through the sale of inexpensive CD players, whether in cars, as stereo components or as Walkman-type devices. Of course, this could be argued, and I do not have research to prove this. However, I have talked to many of my former students at Cornell University where I have taught, who have openly admitted that they have downloaded hundreds of MP3 files of copyrighted music, and they have no plans of buying the actual recordings—ever! This flies in the face of the notion that listening to a few sample selections from a CD will encourage people to purchase the CD. For many consumers, the relative ease of downloading and sharing MP3 files seems to say that no, you do not need to respect the amount of work that went into making the recording.

If we have the technology to make CD’s, MP3 files, and services like Napster, we can also invent technology to completely keep track of all music files that are downloaded and traded on the Internet. Artists could theoretically be compensated for individual sound files with "micro payments" by consumers to licensing organizations such as ASCAP and BMI. In my opinion, it is the truly callous consumer who would not be willing to pay an amount of money equivalent to a cup of coffee or much less for downloading a potentially very entertaining or enriching song or other piece of music.

In fact, regarding the above, here is a case and point: the New York Times article mentioned above is offered for one week for free to the general public, and then after a week, you can access the article for a small "micro payment." This one-week free period is not a right of consumers; it is a gift from the New York Times. It is also perhaps a "loss leader" to entice you to go out buy their newspaper.

By stripping away or watering-down current copyright laws, we will surely be hurting the little guys. However, this is not the point: artist who enrich our lives by spending their lives creating music, whether it appeals to the masses or not, should be compensated accordingly. Easy, mass distribution by consumers through services like Napster is no excuse for stealing. Just because it can be done, does not mean it should be.

 [January, 2002]