Stifling creativity: Let’s occupy today’s outmoded corporate copyright laws

Rep. Sonny Bono (post-Cher and before he skied into a tree)

Duke University’s Center for the Study of Public Domain notes that New Year’s Day would have ushered in a wonderful opportunity for creativity if the old copyright laws were still in place. Under the old law, in place until 1978, copyright protected works for 56 years. In 1998, the late Sonny Bono, elected to Congress with lots of Hollywood cash, was instrumental in passing the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act that extended the length of copyright “protection” to 70 years.

Nicknamed the Mickey Mouse law because the Disney Corporation feared that “Steamboat Willie” was about to enter the public domain, Bono’s new law keeps you from using these works as a foundation for new creativity:

  • Movies
  • To Catch a Thief
  • Rebel Without a Cause
  • Lady and the Tramp
  • The Seven Year Itch
  • Night of the Hunter
  • East of Eden
  • Books
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Tolkein’s The Return of the King
  • Music
  • Tutti Frutti
  • Blue Suede Shoes
  • Ain’t That a Shame
  • The Great Pretender

Copyright was originally intended to protect artists, by safeguarding their right to license the use of their intellectual property. The initial term of protection extended 50 years after the artist’s death so that their heirs (think Priscilla and Lisa Marie) would be able to benefit for a while. Not only did the Sonny Bono law extended that term to 70 years for individuals but it extended the term to a whopping 120 years for corporations. All that does, of course, is make the 1% richer at the expense of the 99%.

Lengthening copyright not only defeats the original intent of the law to provide artists a decent living, but it robs today’s artists of opportunities to use old works as a foundation for something new. Shakespeare’s historical plays were based on translations of Plutarch and Ralph Holingshed’s Chronicles. Had Shakespeare not had unfettered access to those source materials, he (or Sir Frances Bacon) might never have written them. (Though I could easily live without Coriolanus.)

Instead of enriching artists, today’s copyright laws all too often clog up the courts with lawsuits filed by so-called copyright trolls. Many of these nefarious companies simply file lawsuit after lawsuit in the hope of pressuring unwitting violators into forking over some cash for what is often an inadvertent use of supposedly protected material.

Detroit’s own Armen Balladian of Bridgeport Records is famous for filing hundreds of copyright lawsuits, most involving claims that others are violating his ownership of music created by Parliament Funkadelic’s George Clinton. (Clinton, on the other hand, claims that Balladian faked documents to gain control of his work.)

In any event, as this article in Slate attests, Balladian’s relentless litigation against rap artists who used mere seconds of a Clinton riff effectively ended the creative use of sampling in hiphop music. At one point, a jury dinged Notorious B.I.G. $4 million for using a snatch of a tune Balladian claimed to own.

Can you hear THIS SNIPPET OF CLINTON’S MUSIC in N.W.A.’s 100 Miles? (Thanks to Slate for digging those out.)

Sadly, many artists lose control of the rights to their creative works to the corporations. Nike paid $500,000 to use The Beatles’ song Revolution in this 1987 ad. (Half the fee went to Michael Jackson who shared ownership of the Beatles’ catalogue.)

This was the era when Nike was accused of using overseas sweatshops to manufacture its trendy sneakers. Hearing his radical lyrics used to hawk overpriced consumer goods made by exploited workers might well have killed John Lennon had he not already been gunned down in 1980. (Many fans still call his death an assassination, not because Mark David Chapman was anything but a mentally deranged fan, but because Lennon stood against the relentless assaults of corporate consumerist culture.)

If copyright law did a better job of enriching artists, it might be worth keeping it intact. But it has become yet another way for corporations to strip artists of control of their creative works, while enriching trolls who treat our courts like casinos. It’s time to begin rolling back the corporate excrescences of the Bono law and do right by yesterday’s artists and today’s.


How the media’s addiction to false equivalence distort our politics

Paul Krugman

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman today returns to the theme that the media allows GOP politicians to wage a campaign of lies with impunity. In this case, he notes that GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is painting President Obama as a an anti-business extremist who wants to level incomes for everyone. Krugman also notes that the press will refuse to call that a lie.

Krugman explains that that GOP candidates have learned to rely on the press’ addiction to the notion of false equivalence since it distorts reality by painting both sides as equally black:

“Oh, Mr. Romney will probably be called on some falsehoods. But, if past experience is any guide, most of the news media will feel as though their reporting must be ‘balanced,’ which means that every time they point out that a Republican lied they have to match it with a comparable accusation against a Democrat — even if what the Democrat said was actually true or, at worst, a minor misstatement.”

He goes on to challenge Politifact for naming “The End of Medicare” as the biggest political lie of 2011, when in fact, the Ryan plan would have ended Medicare as we know it, by turning it into a voucher plan without today’s guarantees.

The media’s unwillingness to distinguish clearly between true and false plays into the hands of those who will lie to win. What that means for today’s politics is that it hands over enormous power to the bullying right, and nowhere is this clearer than in the media’s reluctance to distinguish between Tea Party versus the Occupy approach.

I have been to the Tea Party rallies at the Capitol in Lansing, as well as the union rallies and the Occupy protests this past year, and the differences could not be more stark.

At the Tea Party rallies, the undercurrent of paranoia is palpable, as is a heightened sense of righteous indignation often expressed as smugness. Tea Party rallies are designed to heighten the differences between “us” and “them.”

We are the best, the salt of the earth, the faithful. We tell ourselves apocryphal stories about our righteousness to draw a sharp line that divides us, the elect, from you, the damned, the welfare queens, the socialists, the interlopers, the gays and lesbians, the Muslims and other folks who do not accept Jesus as their savior.

At its core, the Tea Party comes across as a movement dominated by bullies and the folks they have terrified who are manipulated by the sharks who know better. These folks know their ideas are not the majority, but they have pollsters like Frank Luntz who know which words to use to hit hot buttons designed to obscure rather than illumniate. They seduce people by claiming the Founding Fathers’ mantle of democracy while trying to force people to bend to their will.

The Occupy events in contrast embrace inclusion. You are one of us. Come join us as we grope our way toward a better world. We don’t have all the answers but we are searching for the truth.

Here are the facts as we know them. Rising inequality threatens us all. The planet is in peril. But we have faith that we can find a better way together if we join forces. Please come and help us and share your ideas. Our general assemblies let everyone who cares a voice.

Some of the Occupy folks may be naive about what it will take to effect the changes they want to see. But where the Tea Party wears guns on their hips demanding their rights, the Occupy protesters embrace non-violence even as they are being assaulted by police.

Imagine the challenge this poses for traditional reporters inured to the “on the one hand/on the other hand” duality. There are no statistics from anointed experts they can cite to explain the differences. If they quote someone like me, they must immediately dash out to find someone to refute what I am saying. The ethos of false equivalence requires praising and bashing both sides in equal measure, and it serves us ill in an era when the bullies are ascendant.

Look and see the difference:

Seth Godin targets “lazy journalism”

In a recent blog posting, Ideavirus author Seth Godin argues that publishing national news in a local news site is lazy journalism. It may get you a few eyeballs, but it makes no sense in building a long-term audience in a global world.

He cites repeated copies of a story about Louis CK as an example of wasted pixels. He also notes re-tweeting what every reader will learn elsewhere merely slices the news pie thinner and thinner. Leave those re-tweets to the unpaid, he argues, so that journalists can spend their time instead digging out something that others don’t already know.

The challenge for the mainstream media, however, is that it is all about revenue. It’s not just easy but cheap to post items from AP and other sources, and the bottom line is all about the clicks. That’s why Huffington Post and other click-hungry sites can’t resist misleading headlines and teasers – made you look!

The issue is finding a sustainable model to provide quality journalism at the local level. I see non-profit national sites such as Truthout and AlterNet have survived without using these tricks. They rely on advertising as well as on asking visitors for donations or using book or DVD giveaways. The challenge is finding similar models for local news whose reach does not extend as far.

Your thoughts?

Traditional media FAIL in covering Occupy

Yesterday’s post criticized the mainstream media for its predictably narrow reporting on the police brutality clearly visible in the video of the peaceful protesters being attacked at the University of California at Davis. A quick tour of some alternative media sites shows that these “new new new” journalists do a far better job of covering these complex and important stories.

In less than 24 hours, more than 75,000 people have already seen the video of UC-Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi posted on lhfang86’s YouTube channel. The video shows Katehi walking through a crowd of students sitting in protest in stony silence. By refusing to chant or shout, the students created a stunning tableau beyond what words could convey.

Mainstream media often find themselves hamstrung by their rules in knowing what to do with such news. Many news organizations resist showing “amateur” video from YouTube, while alternative media embrace such first-person accounts.

The AP news story on the incident only included quotes from “officials” – couldn’t they find a protester to talk to or didn’t AP consider them worth quoting?

Meanwhile BoingBoing partner Xeni Jardin posted a great article that included an interview with a student who was pepper sprayed. A student identified only as W recounted what he and his fellow protesters suffered.

BoingBoing also reported that the large canister of pepper spray used by the campus police was military grade, which is not to be used on people within 15 feet, a prohibition the officers at UC-Davis clearly violated. Wikipedia, much maligned by the mainstream media, reports pepper spray’s dubious history, including the two-month prison stint served by the FBI agent who falsified the testing that authorized the use of this dangerous chemical by domestic police agencies. Of particular concern are reports that pepper spray could be lethal to people with various medical conditions such as asthma.

The Anonymous-themed 99% Legion Is Awakening site on Tumblr gives visitors contact information on one of the officers seen spraying students in the video, as well as for the UC-Davis chancellor and police chief among other officials. While the site urges people to “[p]lease be respectful in your condemnation of this act of brutality,” I think it’s a safe bet that Lt. John Pike, Chancellor Katehi and Police Chief Spicuzza found themselves fielding a few blistering phone messages.

Mainstream media set up to FAIL

Traditional news reporting techniques are proving inadequate to the task of covering a quicksilver movement that is evolving so quickly. The mind-numbing formula of sprinkling ‘he said/she said’ quotes from people with “standing” (experts, officials, academics, community leaders) leaves readers confused about what to believe and unsatisfied that news account fail to tell them what is really happening.

The leaderless Occupy movement poses a particular problem to traditional reporters because there is no “official” or “expert” authorized to speak for the group. Other than an occasional “man on the street” interview, the mainstream media devalue accounts from citizen participants, victims and witnesses, because of the rationale is that such people often have an axe to grind.

What the MSM fails to acknowledge is that their “experts” often spin events based on the desire to please their bosses or colleagues, or to sell a book, win an election or get a grant. A reporter friend who worked with torture victims in Europe was frustrated that editors were often reluctant to publish their accounts, while the torturers or the officials who protected them were quoted freely because of their credentials.

People crave analysis and context

Mainstream news organizations are struggling with the realization that breaking news is the low-hanging news fruit where fierce competition makes it hard to generate much revenue. Everyone has the same story, so it is hard to drive traffic to your site so that you can profit from page-views and click-through. By rejecting analysis as bias, the traditional press puts itself at an intellectual and economic disadvantage.

In a digital world, people absorb that news almost by osmosis. After a big new story breaks, I often ask my students where they learned the news, and most credit social media.

A trusted friend posts a headline link in a tweet or on Facebook, and my students pick up the news on their cellphone or laptop. Most don’t bother to click on the link back to the story because the headline tells them enough or because their experience tells them they will rest of the story will be mostly empty calories. For real nourishment, they go to non-traditional sites they trust, or they go straight to the source at the acknowledged Occupy Wall Street site or Occupy Headlines.

This is a generation that turns to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show and not Brian Williams and the NBC Nightly News to learn more. For young digital natives to follow a link back to your story, you must offer them better analysis, new insights, a thoughtful point of view, satirical humor, multimedia or interactivity that allows them to feel they are making a difference.

The mainstream press also exhibits a bias against open expressions of emotion, as if feelings taint rationality. Yet don’t we all struggle to figure out how to fell about the news we hear?

Part of this bias may stem from the fact that males still dominate the decision-making at most traditional news organizations, and competitive, highly educated men are often more uncomfortable with feelings than their female counterparts. In his book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Professor Drew Westen notes that it is a mistake to think that rationality is a superior form of decision-making. He argues that males in particular succumb to savagery in places like Darfur or Abu Ghraib if they are freed from a conscience that requires feeling emotions such as horror, compassion or remorse to make the right decision.

The mainstream media instead tries to lure young people on the basis of their hard-won reputation for objectivity, credibility and trust. To which, I can only reply – really?

The New York Times epic fails of Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and Judith Miller’s weapons of mass destruction/mushroom cloud debacle undermine the argument that the mainstream gatekeepers deserve our uncritical trust. If even the “best” news organization in the country gets it so terribly wrong, why not give BoingBoing a try?

It wasn’t a blogger who helped propel us into the Iraq War that has cost us 4,480 US troops killed and more than 32,000 wounded, as well as $800 billion of our tax dollars. (Yes, there is obvious irony in linking to statistics on the Christian Monitor site, but perhaps that simply underscores why news consumers need a spectrum of news sources to choose from.)

The problem with objectivity is that it all too often turns reporters and editors into mere stenographers. When the top-ranking GOP presidential candidate, currently Newt Gingrich, says that Occupy young people who go get a job – after they take a bath – the news organization that repeats such garbage as if it offers balance loses rather than gains credibility.

In the latest issue of Adbusters magazine, the Culture Jammers who launched the Occupy meme, an article on “postcool” says that young people have moved beyond the pose of irony and individualism to an intense commitment to building grassroots solutions. Finding ways to report on these new initiatives will pose problems for traditional reporters without ties to those new communities and whose editors would view serving their needs as taking sides.

My apologies in advance for showing my Sixties roots, but the Occupy movement is forcing the media to decide whether it will be part of the solution or remain part of the problem.

How should journalists deal with UC-Davis’ spin about the pepper spray attack?

A police officer pepper sprays non-violent student protesters

Call it the Rodney King conundrum. Citizen video goes viral showing police out of control. Anyone with a functioning pair of eyes immediately understands the horror of what they are witnessing.

Then cut to the “official” pronouncements and the resulting media coverage, which ask you to ignore your lying eyes.

There was a time when we applauded a watchdog press that stood up for the little guy. But now instead we have a generation of news consumers who think reporters are “biased” if they use terms like “police brutality” and “torture” instead of some PR flack’s sanitized version of events.

Below is the full statement issued by Linda P.B. Katehi, chancellor of the university:

This link takes you to the L.A. Times’ article that offers nothing beyond some quotes from the chancellor’s press release issued today, though it does provide video of the police attack.

The story did not make the home pages of the New York Times or Washington Post but both sites ran a version of the Associated Press article (click here for Washpo and here for the NYT version).

The AP account summarizes the chancellor’s statement in a way that makes her look more sympathetic than the full press release does. The only other quotes come from Annette Spicuzza, the police chief at UC-Davis. The Sacramento Bee is credited with capturing her lame explanation that the pepper spray attack was justified because her officers felt so threatened.

“There was no way out of that circle. They were cutting the officers off from their support. It’s a very volatile situation.” – Chief Spicuzza

Really? If those burly officers clad in riot gear and armed with batons and pepper spray were intimidated by some friendly college students, why should anyone trust them to defend citizens against rapists and murderers?

The bottom line, of course, is that the students who are left out of these articles are the ones who are paying the tuition that is used to pay for the police chief and the brutal officer wielding the can of pepper spray, as well as the mealymouthed chancellor. A task force report in 90 days? That’s it?

I suppose in this era when PR spin is portrayed as an example “civility” and “polite discourse,” we should be happy that Ms. Katehi (or her PR flack) at least used the words “chilling” and “sadness.”

Holding journalists to an outmoded standard of “objectivity” is dangerous in an era when out-of-control police nationwide conducted violent crackdowns among peaceful protesters. The mainstream media will end up looking like part of the problem and not the solution until or unless they can find a way to be more than stenographers waiting for “officials” to issue more unmitigated bs for them to pass along without analysis or comment.