Seen Any Ghost Works Lately?

There's a famous phenomenon in copyright known as the orphan works problem. It refers to the situation in which the copyright owner of a given work cannot be found. This effectively prevents others from using such a work as part of a new project. For example, if you want to make a movie based on a novel, you must first get permission from the novel's copyright holder. But if the novel is an orphan work, then you can't even find the copyright holder. Technically speaking, you could proceed without permission — but you would do so at your own risk. The copyright owner could emerge at any time and demand penalties. You might end up having to pay damages; worse, you might have to abandon or censor your derivative work, no matter how much effort you'd put into it.

Related to the problem of orphan works is another problem, much more serious, yet much less discussed. I call it the ghost works problem. Ghost works are all the works that never get made in the first place, or are made but not released, because copyright concerns prevent them either from being started or from being distributed. Every project that dares not base itself on an orphan work becomes a ghost work, but there are many more ghost works beyond that. Indeed, it would be fair to say that today most works are ghost works. That is, most works either don't exist or are not accessible, because copyright obstructs them. Whenever you walk into a bookstore, survey the shelves around you and imagine them to be 90% empty, for in a sense they are.

The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician

Bob Ostertag

Bob Ostertag is a musician and experimental audio artist based in San Francisco. He has been performing and recording since the 1970s. In this article, he describes the recording industry from the point of view of an experienced musician, and explains why most musicians today would be much better off sharing music via the Internet than signing standard industry recording contracts. He also discusses the larger issue of what happens to society as more and more of our culture gets locked down under centralized corporate control. Bob practices what he preaches: his music is available for download from his web site, bobostertag.com.

(This article is now also running over at AlterNet.)

In March 2006 I posted on the Web all of my recordings to which I have rights, making them available for free download. This included numerous LPs and CDs created over 28 years [1]. I explained my motivations in a statement on the Web site:

I have decided to make all my recordings to which I have the rights freely available as digital downloads from my web site. […] This will make my music far more accessible to people around the globe, but my principal interest is not in music distribution per se, but in the free exchange of information and ideas. "Free" exchange is of course a tricky concept; more precisely, I mean the exchange of ideas that is not regulated, taxed, and ultimately controlled by some of the world's most powerful corporations… [2]

One year later, I continue to be amazed at how few other musicians have chosen this route, though the reasons to do so are more compelling than ever. Why do musicians remain so invested in a system of legal rights which clearly does not benefit them?

A Music Teacher Describes How Copyright Hinders Music Education

(Translations: 中文)

Portait of Janet Underhill

Janet Underhill has been teaching music for 30 years at a private school in Chicago. She has taught piano, voice, guitar, recorder and general music to students of all ages, from kindergarten to graduate school. In this article, she tells how copyright prevents her from providing her students the best possible materials.

I teach general music. My goal is to engage all of my students in music making, to develop their musical skills, and then to send them on to their choice of band, chorus, private lessons, ensembles. Hopefully, my students will continue to connect with music, singing and playing, as part of their lives.

I need materials that are formatted for the elementary student that will foster the development of musical skills as well as provide the materials for enjoyable singing experiences. Such music should contain the changes that the beginning guitar student can handle. True, there are plenty of songs written expressly for the music classroom. They come with permission to copy for classroom use; they're cute, clever, integrated with the broader curriculum, written in the service of math, social science, English -- and have no connection whatsoever to the wider world of parents, grandparents, the community and the culture. The songs are disconnected, expressively flat, remarkably forgettable. They cannot be shared with parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. They don't exist outside of the walls of the school. The children sense this, and do not take them very seriously.

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