Novelist Michael Chabon, in a recent review of a new edition of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, concluded by stating “Every novel is a sequel. Influence is bliss.” Those lines could have been an epigraph for Kembrew McLeod’s Freedom of Expression. McLeod is a sociology professor and an expert in the study of popular culture—just the sort of academic over which right-wingers love to excoriate “liberal” universities. But Freedom of Expression justifies society’s investment in scholars like McLeod: his book is learned, ranges widely over key areas of the copyright and intellectual property wars, and (here’s something you don’t hear everyday in regard to a scholarly work) is damn funny.
“Overzealous copyright bozos” have drawn battle lines all over the map of everyday life. Mickey Mouse, for instance, should have long ago become the common creative property of we, the people; yet, thanks to the late, great hyperbozo, Sonny Bono, Mickey and most everything else, from the early days of the twentieth century on, will be “protected” from creative recirculation for decades to come.
But maybe you don’t care about art and creativity. Perhaps you’ve got a sick friend or family member and the only thing likely to save that person is gene therapy. Thing is, the bozos are at work here, too. Scientists have long been champions of the public domain, of the creative commons. The way science progresses, after all, is by Bob repeating Sarah’s experiment and either verifying or modifying the premises upon which Sarah’s experiment was undertaken. The process falls flat on its face if Sarah, for whatever reasons, keeps her experiment and her experimental results a secret. Secrecy, though, is the name of the game in genetic research. When profit-mongering corporations become involved with academic research, the result is inevitable: scientists stop sharing because they’ve been forced into secrecy by non-disclosure agreements and other impediments to creativity. When asked, researcher after researcher said that such corporate restrictions were impeding the progress of genetic science. The same lust for private intellectual property goes for medicine in general:
“The kinds of constraints intellectual-property laws impose on culture may be bad for music and creativity, but in the case of drug patents it’s literally a life-and-death matter.” When the AIDS activist group, in the 1980s and ‘90s, said “silence = death,” they weren’t kidding. Thinking globally, drug patents have killed millions of people because such patents “silence” availability and accessibility by quashing inexpensive generic alternatives.
Is it really the corporate hunger for profit that is impeding creativity? Yes—but they don’t act alone. There are, of course, an army of lawyers who file the lawsuits and argue the cases that tear apart the creative commons that we, the people, built. And, too, there are “activist judges” (about whom you typically hear decried by right wingers) who interpret the copyright provision in the Constitution in favor of corporations and private holdings. “An argument for the commons,” McLeod writes, “whether it’s the genetic commons or a folk-song commons—is an argument for more creative elbow room. But because of our blind faith in privatization, freedom of expression has been limited artistically, socially and scientifically.”
McLeod is good on intellectual-property law, but where he really shines is with copyright law and its “protection” of music. For instance, if you go to a public park and sing “Happy Birthday” to your child, better bring along your checkbook. Even though the words were written by a group of school children to an ancient folk melody, the teacher of those children copyrighted the song. “Happy Birthday” is still under copyright (more than 100 years later), and a music publisher holds the rights. The public performance of “Happy Birthday” is strictly controlled. Are we supposed to laugh or cry at the ludicrousness of that?
Perhaps even more damaging is the “overzealous copyright bozos”' penchant for suing samplers. Sampling is the art of taking snippets from already recorded music and recirculating them into a new and original piece of music. Snagging a second or two of a drumbeat from an old James Brown tune should be constitutionally protected fair use. But, thanks to activist judges, it isn’t. James Brown wants to be paid big bucks for the privilege of sampling “his” music. Never mind that the “godfather of soul” relied heavily on his band—in particular drummer Clyde Stubblefield—to create that music. The sample-license fee all goes to Brown. This is precisely why hip hop, after an amazing fluorescence in the ‘70s and ‘80s, has become sickeningly repetitive: it simply costs too damn much to license samples to make a richly textured hip-hop tune. According to the music industry, those of us (and I include myself here) who make new music out of old are pirates. The industry has failed to recognize that turntables and samplers are, in fact, instruments of creative production.
If all this sounds hopeless and depressing, McLeod’s book isn’t: he’s funny (or at least sarcastic) throughout, and ends on a hopeful note, at least as regards the arts. There’s a new copyright movement afoot on the Internet, called the “Creative Commons” license, which actually encourages others to reuse (with credit where credit is due) so-licensed work. McLeod’s wit, deep knowledge of the issues, and most of all his love of creative endeavor, make Freedom of Expression a delightful and empowering read.