We’ve often written here about how the copyright industry loves to confuse attribution with control of copying. The two are quite different, of course: plagiarism is not the same as the unauthorized sharing of properly-attributed materials. For example, when college students download songs from the Internet, they do not replace the artists’ names with their own. The vast majority of shared files are accurately credited, even when the copying itself is illegal.

But the industry knows that the public gets much more upset about misattribution (“Artists deserve credit for their work!”) than about illegal copying (“What, I can’t share with my friends?”). So industry representatives take the easy route and simply pretend that one is the other.

I hadn’t expected to see a New York University associate provost fall for the trick, though. Marilyn McMillan, Associate Provost and CITO at NYU, has published A Note on Illegal Downloading. It starts out with a few paragraphs purely about illegal copying, then takes a turn into truly weird territory…

We know that illegal downloading of music is a widespread practice. It has become an international phenomenon, one that is hardly confined to college campuses. Its allure is clear: why would you pay for something—a song to load on your MP3 player or a movie to load on your laptop—when you can get it for free with a little exploration and few keystrokes? And why would you not share something for free with friends?


In answering those questions, the University appeals to what Abraham Lincoln once called “the better angels” of your nature and to your commitment to the culture of scholarship.


As communities of scholars and learners, research universities—such as NYU—have two primary missions: to educate students and to create knowledge. This latter mission involves the production of original scholarship and research. Accordingly it is accompanied by an enormous respect for proper recognition being given to the creator of those ideas and knowledge. In higher education, it is considered a grave act to take another’s work without permission or attribution. At NYU, which also has large and renowned programs in the arts, this respect extends to the creation of new art.


Few in this community would uphold shoplifting CDs from a record store. And few would be content to see their own work—a paper, for instance, or a journal article, or a term project in a course—taken by someone else and used without permission.


Yet, in reality, that is what you do when you download copyrighted files illegally. …

What a coincidence: that’s exactly the same analogy Hilary Rosen (the former head of the RIAA) used to offer when talking on college campuses, and it makes no more sense now than it did when Rosen first tried it. Copying is not like shoplifting (when you copy a song, the original doesn’t go missing), and it’s not like presenting others’ work as your own, either. But if McMillan had stuck to the real issue and said “Few in this community would support post-publication sharing of other people’s papers and journal articles…”, well, she might have found some of her own faculty disagreeing with her: for example, the ones who support Science Commons, the Public Library of Science, and other academic organizations devoted to the idea that sharing knowledge is a good idea.

McMillan ends with this zinger:

The Internet has brought unimaginable access to information and extraordinary flexibility and opportunities for exploration and communication. NYU wants you to take advantage of all that. But, just as you abide by certain standards of behavior for scholarship and for University life, so, too, should you abide by high standards when it comes to the intellectual property of others on the Internet.

Is it too much to ask that a university stand for the spread of knowledge and culture, and that university officials distinguish between crediting and copying? Unfortunately, McMillan is not alone in believing that the prevention of sharing is part of a university’s mission. Consider proposed Amendment 2314 to the U.S. Senate Higher Education Act of 2007 (S. 1462). It would require institutions of higher education to monitor file-sharing, report to the Secretary of Education, and “provide evidence to the Secretary that the institution has developed a plan for implementing a technology-based deterrent to prevent the illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property.”

If you’re a student or faculty member at NYU, please consider writing to Associate Provost McMillan, or pointing her to this article.

Portait of Rick Falkvinge

We had the pleasure of bringing Rick Falkvinge, founder of Sweden’s Pirate Party, on a U.S. West Coast tour in late July and early August, to talk about copyright reform and civil liberties. The Pirate Party is a political party based on radical copyright and patent reform, and it’s started to have an electoral impact in Sweden (see an early 2008 update).

While he was here, CNET News did an interview with him.

Videos of his talks are now available:

  • Keynote speech at OSCON, the O’Reilly Open Source Conference (15 minutes), Thursday, 27 July. Note the audience member coming up to the stage right afterwards to press a campaign contribution into Rick’s hands!

  • Stanford University (79 minutes), Tuesday, 31 July (or click here for audio only). This was a particularly good talk, because the audience had excellent questions.

  • Tech Talk at Google (55 minutes), Tuesday, 31 July. A full presentation of the Pirate Party’s platform and strategy

  • Berkeley CyberSalon (audio only), Sunday, 29 July. A panel discussion entitled “Copyright Reconsidered”, with Rick Falkvinge, Anthony Falzone, Mary Hodder, Fred von Lohmann, myself, and Jeff Ubois as moderator.

The article Publishing Renaissance by Allison Randal, over at the O’Reilly Radar, is a fascinating read. She describes how her press was able to publish its first book — helpfully, she gives actual numbers:

Print-on-demand technology allows individual books to be printed as they’re ordered, and shipped directly to the purchaser. The technology has developed to the point that the quality of a print-on-demand book is equal to the quality of a traditional printed book. This style of publishing is cheap. You generally pay a small set up fee, and then have no other expenses until the book actually sells, and then only pay for the printing. (The printing cost is about $1 per copy higher than a traditional printer at high volume, and cheaper than a traditional printer at low volume.) It cost me well under my goal of $1k to produce Gravitas from start to finish. With all this power at their fingertips, publishers could experiment much more freely with low risk.

She’s very clear on the point that the advantages publishers bring are in marketing and distribution. She also remarks on the larger pattern here:

We’re already seeing a democratization of online media, where blogs and wikis grow to be more frequent sources of information than “professional” media companies. It’s good to see a similar process in more durable media.

Further evidence, I think, that the separation of creation from distribution is really beginning to settle in…

Author-Endorsed Mark

This article is now superseded by The Creator-Endorsed Mark; please see there instead.


Imagine if when you obtained a book (or a song or a movie), you could know whether or not the way you obtained it was explicitly endorsed by its author. Could you use that information to make better choices?

I think so. Here’s a scenario: you walk into your local copy shop and ask for a book you saw recommended on someone’s blog. Machines to print books on demand are already here (see the Bookmobile, for example), so let’s assume that printing up a book at a copy shop is a reasonable thing to do.

Under the current copyright system, the copy shop must have permission from the copyright holder to print the book for you. One way for them to get permission is to work out bulk deals with publishers, so that every time the shop prints a book, a certain percentage goes to the publisher (and then a percentage of that goes to the author). Another possibility is for copy shops to become publishers themselves, bypassing the traditional publishers and working out deals with authors directly.

But many other arrangements are possible, and as more and more information moves onto the Internet, we can’t predict what all such arrangements might look like, nor should we try. What we really need is a flexible framework in which authors and readers can experiment with different models, without being forced into distribution systems that are more restrictive than either party actually wants.

For example, some authors might prefer an approach that takes into account the fact that readers differ in price sensitivity. For such authors, a better arrangement with the copy shop would be to simply set a suggested donation. The shop tells the customer what the author’s suggested amount is, and the customer can include it in the final price, or increase it, or decrease it, depending on her needs and resources (the copy shop’s own copying fee sets the “floor” for the price the customer pays). The copy shop accumulates the donations and sends them in to the author by whatever means the two arrange, most likely an intermediary service.

Is this the best possible system for all creative works? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that it would be good for such experimentation to be not only possible, but easy. In that spirit, here’s a proposal for enabling experimentation.


The Author-Endorsed Mark would be a single trademarked certification symbol that anyone can use to certify their distribution of a work, if the author (copyright holder) has given them permission to do so. In other words, the author is the licensor of the mark, and the distributor is the licensee. An author would allow use of the mark in order to say “These terms of distribution have been endorsed by the author of this work.”. Someone can still distribute the work without meeting those terms, but they can only display the mark if they meet the terms. The point is to provide information, instead of imposing restraints: the purpose of the mark is to allow recipients to know what channels and methods of distribution are endorsed by an artist, yet not restrict everyone to using just those channels (unlike current copyright law).

Currently, by contrast, we have a system in which recipients never have to think about the difference between an author-endorsed channel and a non-endorsed — but still legal — channel. Although this distinction could exist in theory, in practice we rarely get to choose. Instead, most channels are both legal and (implicitly) endorsed, since distributors must negotiate with copyright holders in order to distribute.

It doesn’t have to be like this, and some artists would actually prefer a more relaxed way. Instead of being forced accomplices in a system that shuts down anyone who hasn’t negotiated with them or their representatives, what if artists could offer audiences a way to merely distinguish between endorsed and non-endorsed distributions, and then let the audiences make their own choice? “Non-endorsed” needn’t mean “illegal”, it would simply mean that distributor has not met the author’s preferences, and therefore may not use the Author-Endorsed Mark. If there’s just one mark that everyone uses for this purpose, some percentage of people will learn to look for it, just as a percentage of people have learned to look for the organic certification symbol when shopping for food.

Artists’ preferences don’t have to be about money, either. Earlier, I used a suggested donation amount as an example of a preference, but it could just as easily have been quality of paper, or print resolution, or the presence or absence of advertising on a DVD, or various combinations thereof. The Author-Endorsed Mark is an experimentation enabler: it gives artists a tool to encourage some actions without prohibiting others. Some purchasers will follow the artist’s preferences, but others will try out different arrangements — arrangements that might unexpectedly please or benefit the artist. Instead of everyone being forced to act more or less in lockstep, the way they are today, we could open up the floodgates to a real diversity of systems, while still giving people the ability to make informed choices among those systems.

During a discussion of this proposal, Brian Fitzpatrick pointed out that it might be useful to have a “negative” version of the mark: a symbol you can (or must?) use when distributing something in a way that you don’t know is in accord with the author’s wishes. I think that’s a neat idea: it forces everyone involved in the transaction to be positively aware of the choices they’re making, but without preventing the transaction itself.

That might just be the great lesson of the Internet: information beats control, every time.

(Translations: 中文)

Portait of Jacob Tummon

Today the Vancouver Sun published an editorial by Jacob Tummon entitled “The Case for the Death of Copyright”. Tummon is already known to readers here for his in-depth piece on copyright at Legaltree.ca. While this editorial is necessarily shorter and less detailed than that earlier piece, it still makes a strong case. Tummon is a law school graduate, and he makes the excellent point that unenforceable laws inevitably lead to disrespect for the law itself: “Canada has experience with laws that engender widespread violation: Consider prohibition in the 1920s. A law violated so brazenly is more than meaningless — it undermines the effectiveness of the legal system generally.” Bravo to the Vancouver Sun for giving space to these ideas.

Here’s the full editorial, reprinted with Jacob Tummon’s permission…

The Case for the Death of Copyright

It has been said that intellectual property law has an unfortunate tendency to “disable critical thought.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than the reasons proffered for copyright in the Internet age, including the refrain that “copying is tantamount to stealing.” That flatly is not the case.

The morality, economics, and practicality of laws dealing with physical property do not hold for the intangible works covered by copyright. With finite physical property, scarcity is inescapable; with digital representations, scarcity does not apply. It is therefore not surprising that reasoning premised on this false analogy yields a law not in the best interests of content creators (“content creator” means artists, musicians, writers and so forth.)

The ostensible justification for copyright is that it provides attribution to the original creator and serves as an economic incentive for creators who can license the use of their work to make money, provided someone is willing to pay.

The latter point deserves careful scrutiny as the vast majority of creators do not earn meaningful incomes through copyright. Moreover, there are viable models for creators to earn income from their work which do not depend on copyright. Sponsorships, ticket sales, T-shirt sales and commissioned works are obvious longstanding examples.

Canadian musician Jane Siberry offers her music on her website using a “pay what you can” system, but a guideline shows the average price customers have paid per track. The result is an average price higher than what one would pay through iTunes. There are also similarly clever business models for novelists.

Embedding advertising or product placement within a TV show or movie is another viable means to pay for content. Budweiser produces its own TV-type shows on its website Bud.TV. Budweiser’s motive is worth noting for its prescient thinking: “If we don’t start playing in this digital game now we’re going to be playing catch-up for a long time. And this is an industry that can’t afford catch-up,” explained Tony Ponturo, Anheuser-Busch’s vice-president of global media and sports marketing.

Nor is proper attribution dependent on copyright. Tort law, through causes of actions like defamation and passing-off, could be wielded to prevent someone other than the original creator from claiming authorship, and also the original creator being credited with an altered version of the work. Incidentally, plagiarism in an academic setting is currently enforced independently of copyright.

Trademarks and patents are other areas of intellectual property that do not depend on copyright and would continue to exist in the absence of copyright.

That copyright isn’t needed for attribution or economic incentive is not the whole story. There is a body of work, in all areas covered by copyright, which requires the elimination of copyright to flourish. DJ’s making mixed tapes is a simple example.

Consider, with the means available through modern software, the splicing of video to say nothing of novels; a freeing from the constraints of copyright would invariably lead to an explosion of works being altered, transformed, improved, and ultimately morphed into new works.

The lack of such creative works is a not insignificant cost of copyright. This repressing effect can be damaging to the promotion of political and social expression and greater productivity.

Copyright was originally created as a means for government to exercise censorship after the advent of the movable type printing press. Given this origin it is not surprising that copyright is not intellectually coherent.

Stephen Breyer, now a judge on the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote as an academic in the 1970s on the weak case for copyright, asking why the work covered by copyright should be treated differently than other actions that produce value far beyond what they get remuneration for, i.e. the person who invents the supermarket, the person who clears a swamp, a schoolteacher.

The truth is that copyright has traditionally, and to this day, served primarily the publisher’s interest and not that of the creator or the public — it is not derived from natural justice.

Irrespective of moral and economic dimensions, the deathblow to copyright will likely come from the Internet itself. Due to the nature of the Internet, and anonymizing technologies in particular, the practicality of attempting to enforce a pre-internet copyright regime through the Internet is a road that we as a society should not go down.

Canada has experience with laws that engender widespread violation: Consider prohibition in the 1920s. A law violated so brazenly is more than meaningless — it undermines the effectiveness of the legal system generally.

Over time, the Internet will increasingly expose constraints on text, pictures, and videos for what they are — arbitrary and outmoded. In the meantime, it makes sense for Canada not to pass copyright laws that are more restrictive and invasive.

Jacob Tummon is a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia’s faculty of law.

As promised, here’s the Op-Ed piece (lightly edited) that I sent in to the New York Times as a response to Mark Helprin’s article on extending copyright.

Great Ideas Live Forever — But Only If We Let Them.

The title of Mark Helprin’s May 20th Op-Ed piece (“A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?”) puts an important question front and center. And the answer is a resounding “No.”

It is precisely because great ideas and great works of art live forever that restrictions on accessing them should be temporary and limited, much more limited than they are today. This is not only because access to culture and knowledge is a public benefit in itself, but also because those who create new works build on the works of their predecessors and peers. All creation is derivative — as Mr. Helprin, himself a writer, ought to know.

Treating works of the mind as physical property fails at a basic logical level: if I steal your bicycle, now you have no bicycle; if I copy your song, now we both have it. When Helprin argues that the government should not be able to “commandeer” your works (by which he means, apparently, allow them to pass into the public domain), he blurs this crucial distinction. The government is not commandeering anything. Even after leaving copyright, your work is still your own. After all, no one is arguing against rights of attribution being preserved: the world will still know who made that book, or song, or painting. What’s really happening is that the government is finally relinquishing command of the work, by allowing it to flow freely in the great creative stream where the bulk of humanity’s inheritance resides.

The question we should be asking is: for how long should the government give any private party — sometimes the author, more often a publisher — the ability to prevent others from making copies and derivative works? That is all copyright does, in the end. It is not an ownership right, it is a temporary monopoly. In possessing a copyright, I possess nothing tangible that I didn’t have before, I simply have the privilege to cause others to possess less, and can rent or sell this privilege for a fee.

But if copyright is just the option to prevent other people from exchanging information freely, we should surely demand the strongest possible proof that it benefits society, before granting such severe powers even temporarily. Yet Helprin proposes extending copyright terms to be essentially infinite. Why?

Helprin has fallen prey to three myths. The first is the fallacy of a natural right of ownership (that is, control) for works of the mind. The reason ownership makes sense for bicycles is that, without ownership, it would be too difficult to decide how a particular bicycle would be used. Imagine a world where bicycles couldn’t be owned: every time I wanted to ride mine, I might have to put it up to a vote by the whole world. Endless discussions would ensue, perhaps a run-off election.

The idea is ludicrous, of course. We have ownership so we can efficiently make decisions about exclusive allocation of resources. But the key word is “exclusive”: when the resources are infinitely renewable, as with works of the mind, I can ride my bicycle and so can you, and neither of us need interfere with the other. The idea that owning creative works is somehow a natural right thus founders on the rocks of physical reality. When Helprin equates copyrights with houses, he chooses a bad metaphor, and comes to bad conclusions.

The second myth is that of the lone genius, the solitary creator whose works spring de novo from some unique spark, owing nothing to anyone else. That’s simply not how creativity works. It is sobering to realize just how many masterpieces we would be without now, had copyright laws always been as strict as they are today. Helprin cites a Mozart aria as an example of art (and let us note, in passing, that Mozart was paid through grants, commissions, and salaries, not through copyright royalties). If Helprin is fond of opera, has he considered that we would likely be without Verdi’s “Macbeth”, had Shakespeare’s plays not been part of the public domain, accessible to all as a basis for derivative works? I pick this example at random; there are many others. Derivation is not some statistical outlier, it is the norm, and the freedom to practice it has been central to creativity for millennia. Transcription, rearrangement, quotation, and translation of other works have always been the marrow of art, as any musician, painter, or writer can testify. Only recently have we begun insisting that certain of these creative imitations be kept private, or else be subject to the grueling process of “rights negotiation”, which causes so many works of art to be suppressed or heavily modified.

The third myth, which Helprin relies on unquestioningly, is that today’s severe copyright regime is justified because it provides an economic basis for creativity. A look at the lives of most artists suffices to show how wrong this is. Today, as in the past, most creators fund their activities through day jobs, grants, commissions, patronage, sale of first-print rights, and performances — but only rarely through copyright royalties. It is true that a small minority of creators do earn a living from copyright, and if we think that business model worth preserving, we should be considering how long copyright terms really need to be to support it. It’s hard to imagine, though, that if we evaluated copyright strictly as an economic incentive, we would be able to justify multiple decades of monopoly control, as we currently have, let alone extending and tightening that control to the degree Helprin proposes. A few years of copyright? A decade, perhaps? These are the lengths of time within which most copyrighted works make most of their royalties. Restrictions beyond that should be viewed at best as indulgences, certainly not as rights.

Helprin writes that “an agricultural-age law makes no sense in our creative era”. But copyright is not an agricultural-age law. It was designed in the early eighteenth century around the limitations of the printing press. Publishers, not authors, proposed it as a compromise measure to replace an expiring censorship law. Their argument was that exclusive print rights would be needed to ensure dependable reproduction, in an age when the technology and economics of print runs were the main hurdles in making works accessible to the public. From the start copyright was not really about subsidizing creation, it was about subsidizing distribution, just as it is today.

Except that today we have a far better distribution mechanism than the eighteenth century ever dreamed of. We’ve just finished building a worldwide copying and editing machine — the Internet — and this is no time to shrink from using it. Mark Helprin’s proposed course would hurt artists and the public alike. Instead, we should be trying to reduce copyright to the minimum needed (if any) to bring new works into existence, and treating works of the mind as seeds, to be returned as soon as possible to the fertile earth of the public domain.

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.

That might sound surprising. After all, the shelves look full, don’t they? To see why they are not, let’s start with an inverse example: a classic work that (fortunately) isn’t a ghost work, but easily could have been, had its authors lived under the modern copyright regime.

In April 2007, the singer Max Ziff and I gave a concert at the Berkeley Piano Club, in Berkeley, California. We performed one of the great works of nineteenth-century German song: Die Schöne Müllerin, Franz Schubert’s musical setting of twenty poems by Wilhelm Müller. Müller and Schubert were not a team, though. In fact, when Müller wrote the poems, around 1820, it was with the intention that an entirely different composer, Ludwig Berger, would set them to music, which Berger did. Müller and Schubert never met, and Müller apparently never even knew that Schubert too had set his poems to music.

Not that Schubert was trying to hide anything from Müller. It was simply that, at the time, there was no cultural expectation that one must ask permission before making a derivative work from someone else’s original work. Müller’s poems, having been published, were now considered part of the common culture, and if composers wanted to write songs based on them, they were free to do so. To our eternal benefit, Franz Schubert had this freedom: Die Schöne Müllerin is a truly inspired piece of music, one that has influenced generations of singers and composers.

Our concert thus depended on the public domain in two ways. One way is obvious: Die Schöne Müllerin is, legally, in the public domain today, so we are free to perform it without arranging royalty payments to anyone. But there is a deeper dependency, too: this music would not exist in the first place had there not been a healthy public domain at the time the poems were written.

Imagine if Müller and Schubert had lived in the present day, instead of the early nineteenth century. Müller writes his poems, intending for Ludwig Berger to set them to music; Berger does so. Then a mostly unknown composer, Franz Schubert, appears out of the blue, wishing to set them to his own music and asking Müller’s permission. But Müller can’t give permission — he doesn’t own the copyright anymore, his publisher does, and the publisher, not wishing to encourage competition with the Berger settings, is inclined to refuse. Perhaps Schubert could pay for the privilege? But no, he doesn’t have those kinds of resources. Or perhaps he’d like to negotiate a royalty-sharing arrangement? But Schubert has no lawyer, and no head for haggling over contracts. He’s a composer, not a negotiator. Well then, he is free to set the songs for his private enjoyment (that’s “fair use”) but he certainly may not distribute them!

In all likelihood, things wouldn’t even get that far, of course. Instead, Schubert would know in advance that he cannot always follow where his inspiration leads, when where it leads him is into someone else’s copyrighted territory. Instead, he would just accept that the work of most of his contemporaries is out-of-bounds for someone like him, an unknown with no resources. And so we would not have Die Schöne Müllerin… nor Die Winterreise (another of his song cycles), nor many of his individual songs, which often set the work of living poets.

And that’s just one composer.


This exercise in imagination highlights one of the most insidious aspects of the ghost works problem: that it cannot be easily measured, no matter how great its magnitude. We can point to an existing album, a movie, or a book and say “There! There is that thing, that physical object, whose existence is beyond doubt.” But how can we point to something that is not there? How can we know what we do not have? We can only measure the loss indirectly; nevertheless, there is compelling anecdotal evidence that it is large.

Some of this evidence comes from the world of free and open source software, where it is traditional not only that the software itself be released under open copyright licenses, but that the software’s documentation be similarly licensed. This means, among other things, that derivative works such as translations can be made by anyone. In theory, this could be done without permission or cooperation from the original authors, but in practice translations are almost always authorized and approved, because cooperation is easier than territorialism.

The result of this freedom is that the documentation for virtually all major open source programs, and many minor ones, has been translated into several languages, usually enough languages to cover the vast majority of the software’s user base. Furthermore, the translations are usually kept up-to-date as the software and its documentation evolve.

This phenomenon is not limited to technical documentation. In late 2005, I published a book entitled Producing Open Source Software: How to Run a Successful Free Software Project. The publisher, O’Reilly Media, although marketing the book through traditional trade and bookstore channels, agreed to release it under a permissive (open source) copyright. Accordingly, I put the book’s full text online at producingoss.com — and pretty soon people showed up to translate it! I did nothing to seek out translators, except release the book under a liberal license; only after the first translators showed up did I put a notice on the front page soliciting more. Now we’ve got a German translation under very active development (with two separate translators who only met through cooperating on this project), a Hebrew one happening somewhat more slowly, and some recent arrivals looking at doing a Chinese version.

This is happening with a book that has, let’s face it, a fairly limited audience. Not only that, it’s the second time this has happened to a book I’ve published (see cvsbook.red-bean.com). Once could be coincidence; twice is starting to look like a pattern. And I’m only using my own books as examples because they’re the first thing that came to mind. There are hundreds of open source projects that could tell a similar tale about their documentation. The lesson to draw here is that, were it not for copyright restrictions, most books in the world would be translated into several languages. After all, the better the book, the more some multilingual reader will be motivated to translate it. The translation doesn’t have to be perfect, because there will also be people who show up to edit it. These projects tend to self-organize in exactly the same way that open source software projects do.

But under the current copyright regime, if you want to release a translation of a book that was published under traditional restrictions, you don’t just sit down and start translating. Instead, you start by negotiating the right to translate — a process which is completely unrelated to actually translating, and is also daunting, time-consuming, and likely to fail. It’s hard to imagine a more potent gumption sink than “rights negotiation”. The mere prospect is enough to shut down most translation projects — which is why I look at those bookstore shelves and see them as mostly empty.

For those who leave rights negotiation for later, the penalties can be severe indeed. Recently, I opened the April 2nd, 2007 issue of the New Yorker to see the following notice from David Denby in the “Critic’s Notebook” section:

In 1977, Charles Burnett, a U.C.L.A. film student, made his thesis film, “Killer of Sheep,” a fictional portrait of life in the Watts section of Los Angeles, for less than ten thousand dollars. The film has attained legendary status, but it has never been released theatrically before, because of music-rights issues. Burnett used many kinds of African-American music on the soundtrack, and the movie itself has the bedraggled eloquence of an old blues record. […]

In other words, for thirty years — long past the time when its topics were contemporary, long past when it could have had the most impact and been most appreciated — a great film has languished unseen. For thirty years, Killer of Sheep was a ghost work. And to what end? Movie licensing royalties are probably not why those musicians recorded that music, and are in general not a significant part of most musicians’ incomes. That a few musicians occasionally hit the royalties jackpot is indisputable, but does that skewed and random result really justify the censoring of a film for three decades?


Now sensitized to the presence of ghost works all around us, I usually don’t need to go out of my way to find examples. Instead, I can depend on them finding me with some regularity. Such was the case here. While writing this article, I opened my New Yorker and saw the above piece. I could have chosen from several other examples that crossed my path in the last week — and those are just the stories that someone bothers to tell. This fact alone is a clue to the size of the problem.

If one person can gather a few examples of ghost works without even trying, many people working together can really start to catalogue the problem. Maybe after we have enough we’ll start to notice some patterns. So please keep your eyes open, and if a ghost work crosses your path, let us know. Our contact page is http://www.questioncopright.org/contact.

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?

When record companies first appeared, their services were required in order for people to listen to recorded music. Making and selling records was a major undertaking. Recording studios and record manufacturing plants had to be built, recording technology and techniques developed. Records not only had to be manufactured but also distributed and advertised. Record executives may have been crooked in their business practices, callous about music, or racist in their treatment of artists, but the services the companies provided were at least useful in the sense that recorded music could not be heard without them. Making recorded music available to the general public required a significant outlay of capital, which in turn required a legal structure that would provide a return on the required investment.

The contrast with the World Wide Web today could not be more striking. Instant, world-wide distribution of text, image, and sound have become automatic, an artifact of production in the digital realm. I start a blog, I type a paragraph: instant, global “distribution” is a simple artifact of the process of typing. Putting 28 years of recordings up on my Web site for free download was a simple procedure involving a few hours of effort yet resulting in the same instant, free, world-wide distribution. It makes no difference if 10 people download a song or 10,000, or if they live on my block or in Kuala Lumpur: it all happens at no cost to either them or me other than access to a computer and an Internet connection.

So much for distribution. What about production? Almost none of my releases were recorded in a recording studio provided by a record company. They were either recorded on-stage, in schools or radio stations, or in living rooms, bedrooms, and garages with whatever technology I could cobble together. They are made either by myself alone or with a small handful of close collaborators. In one sense this is atypical, because I intentionally developed an approach to recording that was premised on never needing substantial resources, with the explicit goal of maintaining maximum artistic autonomy. Yet while this approach may have been unusual 20 years ago, it is less and less so today as digital technology has drastically reduced the cost of recording. There are very few recording projects today that actually require the resources of the sort of high-end recording studios record companies put their artists in (and for which the artists then pay exorbitantly – bills which must be paid off before the musicians see any royalties from their recordings). Just as the Web has changed the character of music distribution, laptops loaded with the hardware and software necessary for high-quality sound recording and editing have changed the character of music production.

Record companies are not necessary for any of this, yet the legal structure that developed during the time when their services were useful remains. Record companies used to charge a fee for making it possible for people to listen to recorded music. Now their main function is to prohibit people from listening to music unless they pay off these corporations.

Or to put it slightly differently, they used to provide you with the tools you needed to hear recorded music. Now they charge you for permission to use tools you already have, that they did not provide, that in fact you paid someone else for. Really what they are doing is imposing a “listening tax.”

Like all taxes, if you don’t pay you are breaking the law, you are a criminal! Armed agents of the state have shown up at private residences and taken teenagers away in handcuffs for failure to pay this corporate tax. It is worth noting how draconian state coercion has been in this field in comparison to many others. For example, almost everyone I know (including myself) has a unpaid copy of Microsoft Word on their computer. I am certain that some kids who have run into legal trouble for sharing music without paying the corporate tax also had unpaid copies of Microsoft Word on the very same hard disks that were taken as “evidence” of their musical crimes. Yet no state agents are knocking on the doors of our houses to see if we have pirated software. Music alone is singled out for this special treatment.

You would think that musicians would be leading the rebellion against this insanity, but most musicians remain firmly committed to the idea of charging fees for the right to listen to their recorded music. For rock stars at the top of the food chain, this makes sense economically (if not politically). The entire structure of the record industry is built around their interests, which for all their protesting to the contrary dovetails fairly well with those of the giant record companies [3].

But the very same factors that make the structure of the record business favor the interests of the sharks at the top of the food chain work against the interests of the minnows at the bottom, who constitute the vast majority of people actually making and recording music. Most records, in fact, produce good money for corporations and little or none for the musicians. This is because the recording studios and engineers, art departments, advertising departments, A&R departments, legal departments, limo services, tour agencies, caterers, and distribution networks that swallow up the sales revenue for all but the big hits are owned by these very same corporations. Records that sell tens of thousands don’t “break even” not because no money comes in, but because all the money goes to keeping the corporation in the black. Revenue for the corporation starts coming in with the first CD sold, royalties for artists don’t kick in until every part of the bloated corporate beast is adequately fed.

What exactly are these corporations? To begin with, we should note that the major “record companies” are not actually record companies at all but huge media conglomerates. Most “independent” labels are owned by a corporate label. Each “major” is in turn owned by an even bigger corporation, and so on up the food chain. At the top of the chain sit a tiny handful of media giants: Time Warner, Disney, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany, Viacom (formerly CBS) and General Electric. These corporations are among the world’s largest. All are listed in Fortune Magazine’s “Global 500” largest corporations in the world. They have integrated both horizontally (owning lots of record labels, lots of newspapers, and radio stations) and vertically (controlling newspapers, magazines, book publishing houses, and movie and TV production studios, as well as print distribution systems, cable and broadcast TV networks, radio stations, telephone lines, satellite systems, web portals, billboards, and more).

This incredible concentration of power over news, entertainment, advertising, music, and media of all kinds is a recent phenomena, and is fueled by the very same digital technology that has made the Web and the recording-studio-in-the-bedroom possible. In 1983, 50 corporations dominated US mass media, and the biggest media merger in history was a $340 million deal. By 1997 the 50 had shrunk to 10, one of which was created in the $19 billion merger of Disney and ABC. Just three years later, the end of the century saw the 10 shrink to just five amidst the $350 billion merger of AOL and Time Warner, a deal more than 1,000 times larger than “the biggest deal in history” just 17 years before. As Ben Bagdikian, author of the classic study The New Media Monopoly noted, “In 1983, the men and women who headed the first mass media corporations that dominated American audiences could have fit comfortably in a modest hotel ballroom… By 2003, [they] could fit in a generous phone booth.” [4]

These companies own the most powerful ideology-manufacturing apparatus in the history of the world. It is no wonder they have convinced most musicians, and most everyone else, that the entire endeavor of human music-making would come to a screeching halt if people were allowed to listen to recorded music without first paying a fee – to these corporations. I know many musicians for whom making records in an environment dominated by corporate giants has been an exhausting and thankless task from which they have derived little or no gain, yet they remain convinced that taking advantage of the free global distribution offered by the Internet would constitute some sort of professional suicide.

Here is how the structure of this industry ruins the aspirations of independent-minded musicians and labels. Mainstream CDs sell in really large numbers only for a short window of time, usually while songs from the CD are on the radio. Unless those CDs are on the shelves of stores while the songs are on the air, potential sales are lost. In order to get stores to order large numbers of CDs in advance, the industry evolved with the norm that stores can return unsold CDs at any time. If your company sells pants, or toasters, or bicycles, retailers cannot do this, but record shops can. As a result, record labels must have more money in the bank per unit sales – be more capitalized – than other kinds of companies. Unfortunately, with almost all independent labels this is far from the case. Most are started by music fans driven in to the business by their passion for the music they love. They operate on a shoestring. They send out a bunch of records and hope for the best. Sales might look good at first, but at some later point they get swamped with returns and they have a cash flow crisis. To survive the crisis they engage in creative bookkeeping, telling themselves it is OK because they are really doing this in the interest of the artists, and when things improve everything will get sorted out. But things only get worse, until they collapse or they get bought by a bigger company with more capital. If they collapse, artists don’t get paid and there is a storm of mutual recrimination. If they get bought, the company that buys them is generally only interested in the top selling artists in the catalog, and may well take all the other titles out of print. I know one artist who had ten years of his recordings vanish into the vault of a big label that bought the little label he recorded for. He approached his new corporate master and asked to buy back the rights of his own work and was refused. In the company’s view, his work did not have sufficient market potential to justify releasing it and putting corporate market muscle behind promoting it, but neither did they want his work released by anyone else to compete with the products they did release. From their perspective it was a better bet to just lock it up.

I could relate many more anecdotes here, or delve deeper into the structure of the industry, but I think what has been said so far should suffice. Among people in my immediate social circle of musicians, John Zorn, Mike Patton, and Fred Frith have, over the years, sold CDs in sufficient quantity to actually make money. For all the rest of us, selling recordings in whatever format has been a break-even proposition at best. Not only have we not made any money, for most people in the world our music is unavailable. My works provide an excellent example.

  • My first LP, with the Fall Mountain ensemble, was released on Parachute, a small label run by Eugene Chadbourne which folded long ago and the music has been unavailable ever since.

  • My Getting A Head and Voice of America were released on Rift, a small label run by Fred Frith which suffered the same fate. It remained unavailable until I put it on line for free.

  • My Attention Span, Sooner or Later, Burns Like Fire, and Say No More were released on RecRec in Switzerland, a label launched by a music fan that went through exactly the trajectory typical of small labels I described above. By the time that I, and other artists recording for the label, discovered that we were being cheated out of our royalties the label was already collapsing. Here again, all this music remained unavailable until I put it on line for free. Since then, several thousand people have heard it.

I could continue this list but there are a lot of CDs and the stories would become dully repetitive. Of course, my music is pretty far off the beaten path. But if I had instead spent the last decades playing in rock bands that had released a series of recordings that each sold in the tens of thousands, the details would be different but the result would be the same. This is the structure of music distribution it is allegedly in the interests of musicians to defend.

There is now a very simple alternative, which is to simply post your music on the web. No, you won’t make any money from it, but the odds are overwhelming that you would never make any money from it anyway if you charged for it. And by posting it on the Web a remarkable thing happens. People all over the world can actually hear it. When I was making my music available for sale on CD, I would often hear from people who had spent years unsuccessfully trying to find a copy of a particular CD, and these were dedicated hard core listeners, who put a lot of their free time into music. Now anyone with even a passing interest can find my music easily and hear it.

People have actually been convinced that if it were not possible to charge fees for listening to recorded music, there would be no “incentive” to play music. It’s time to take a step back and see the big picture. As recently as 60 years ago, most people who made their livelihood from music viewed the recording industry as a threat to their livelihood, not the basis of it. Given the mountains of money that big stars have made during the intervening decades, this fear has generally been viewed in retrospect as hopelessly naïve. But consider the following: A few years ago I performed in the cultural festival organized by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, and witnessed the parade and dance party which is this festival’s culminating event. The parade brought roughly half a million people into the streets, including participants and observers. It took hours for the parade to slowly move through its course. Every contingent in the parade had its own choreography and music. The participants danced through the street, and many spectators danced alongside. So that’s half a million people dancing in the street for several hours. The parade ended in a 12-hour dance party attended by over 20,000, featuring seven different pavilions with non-stop music in each. Before the era of recording, the number of musicians required to keep half a million people dancing in the street for six hours, and then 20,000 dancing for 12 hours more, would have easily run in to the thousands. At the event I attended, the musicians involved numbered exactly one. No contingent in the parade included a live musician – all were dancing to recordings. All the music at the dance party was recorded as well. In the largest pavilion, at the climax of the party, an actual live singer, Chaka Kahn, emerged in a blaze of fireworks and lights to sing a short medley of her hits – to recorded accompaniment.

Humans have walked this earth for about 195,000 years. We don’t know exactly when music emerged, but it was certainly a very long time ago, long before recorded history. There is evidence that music may have been integral to the evolution of the human brain, that music and language developed in tandem. The first recording device was invented just 129 years ago. The first mass-produced record appeared just 110 years ago. The idea that selling permission to listen to recorded music is the foundation of the possibility of earning one’s livelihood from music is at most 50 years old, and it is a myth. The fact that most musicians today believe in this myth is an ideological triumph for corporate power of breathtaking proportions.


I should note that I do have serious reservations about the emerging culture of on-line music, but they have nothing to do with money. My music is made for sustained, concentrated listening. This kind of listening is increasingly rare in our busy, caffeine-driven, media-drenched, networked world. I suspect it is even rarer for music that was downloaded for free, broken up and shuffled through fleeting “playlists”, and not objectified in an object that one can hold in one’s hand, file on the shelf, or give to a friend. But this concern has nothing to do whether we charge money to hear recorded music, and everything to do with how we live in a culture in which there is a surplus of information and a scarcity of time to pay attention.


The issues involved here are hardly limited to music, but extend outward to a legal and corporate structure that shapes our culture so profoundly its importance can hardly be exaggerated. Music is no longer just music but a small subset of a corporation’s properties. Property rights have become so absurdly swollen that they now constitute a smokescreen hiding a corporate power grab on a scale rivaling that of the great robber barons of the nineteenth century. Instead of grabbing land or oil, today’s corporate barons are seizing control of culture. They are using the legal construct of property to extend the reach of corporate power into parts of our lives that were previously beyond their grasp.

There are so many shocking anecdotes one could relate in this regard; here is one from my own recent experience. If it seems trivial at first glance, it is because it is. That is precisely my point, as you will see if you bear with me.

It has been my privilege to have John Cooney as a student. John is young, bright, enthusiastic, hard-working, politically engaged, and artistically gifted. During his freshman year at UC Davis, he made a short animation about global warming that won the Flash Contest prize from Citizens for Global Solutions, and the Environmental Award of the Media That Matters Film Festival. He also made a computer game that he put on-line for free, and that was listed as a “Top Free Online Games” by Freeonlinegames.com, a “Game of the Week” by ActionFlash.com, and a “Featured Game,” by Addicting Games. John’s game also made the “Flash Player Top Games List,” and was even the subject of a story on BBC World News.

Not bad for an 18-year old college freshman. But both his projects resulted in cease-and-desist letters from corporate lawyers, including one from Tolkien Enterprises demanding that he not refer to an animated character in a game he was offering on-line for no charge as a “hobbit.” None of this involved high stakes or dire consequences. John’s game no longer features a “hobbit.” This case is trivial compared to parents getting sued for vast sums because their kids are downloading pop songs, or the unhappy plight of Eyes on the Prize, a film which beautifully documents the civil rights movement in the US, yet was withdrawn from circulation because its makers could not afford to renew all the necessary permissions on the incidental music that “leaked” into the film via documentary footage (which included a substantial payment to the copyright holders of the “happy birthday” song as the film shows Martin Luther King Jr.’s family at home celebrating the civil rights leader’s birthday).

But John’s experience is important precisely because it did not involve important people or high-profile issues. Even though there was no realistic possibility that anyone would think Tolkien Enterprises had somehow endorsed or been involved in John’s project, the mere fact that someone, somewhere was making new, independent culture using Tolkien Enterprises’ copyrighted character was enough to set the corporate reflexes in motion. The key thing here is the convergence of corporate power with the growth of the World Wide Web. If John had just shown his game in class and not put it on the Web, Tolkien Enterprises would have never known or cared. If his animation had not won an award, there would likely have been no legal threats. Together, the episodes offer an elegant demonstration of how copyright law punishes success and deters creative use of the World Wide Web.

Anything on the Web is available to anyone, which is of course both its promise and its peril. Corporate legal departments can write automated programs that crawl through the Web 24/7 searching for copyrighted works. The “hits” then generate threatening letters that intimidate anyone who doesn’t have deep pockets and a lot of time on their hands. The cost to the sender is almost nil; the cost to society is, in a literal sense, immeasurable.

Getting a threatening letter for a corporate legal department is not a pleasant experience for anyone, least of all an 18-year old kid. Keep in mind that more and more students turn in homework assignments via the Web, and not just in college but in high school too. All of that work is now exposed to the corporate vultures.

“Property rights” have bloated to the point where they can dictate the content of freshman art projects. But that is not all. Altogether more and more of what we do in our lives passes through the Web. People invite friends to parties, view art, listen to music, play games, have political discussions, date and fall in love, post their family photo albums, share their dreams, and play out sexual fantasies – all on line. Since corporate legal departments claim their copyright privileges extend to anything on the Web, the result is a huge extension of corporate power into private lives and social networks.

But that is just the beginning of the story, for the accelerating rate of technological change continues to push digital technology further and further into our lives in just about any direction you might look. To pick just one example, boundaries between our bodies and minds and our technology are blurring. Cochlear implants, for example, now allow deaf people to hear via computer chips loaded with copyrighted software which are implanted in their skulls and in response to which their brains reconfigure, growing new synapses while unused synapses fade. Cochlear implants are wirelessly networked to hardware worn outside the body which usually connects to a mic, thus allowing the deaf to hear the sound environment around them. But the external hardware can just as easily be plugged into a laptop’s audio output for a direct audio tap into the Web.

When the Web extends into chips in our skulls, where is the boundary between language that is carved up into words that are corporately owned and language that is free for the thinking?

I don’t wish to be sensationalist. We are not all about to turn into corporately-owned cyborgs. But I do wish to point out that the issues around turning culture into property are urgent, and far-reaching. Society is not well-served if we treat specific matters like downloading music on the Web as isolated problems instead of one manifestation of a vastly bigger struggle in which much more is at stake.


1 The original recording titles includes Early Fall, Getting A Head, Voice of America, Sooner or Later, Burns Like Fire, Fear No Love, Pantychrist, Like A Melody, No Bitterness, DJ of the Month, Say No More, Say No More in Person, Verbatim, and Verbatim Flesh and Blood.

3 Prince is the one notable exception here – a megastar who has used the Internet to build a music distribution infrastructure controlled by him and not a Fortune 500 company.

4 Ben H. Bagdikian, The New Media Monopoly, Boston: Beacon, 2004.

(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.

What my students need is a good mix of children’s song literature, folk music, appropriate pop literature, Broadway songs, and songs from the American song book. Songs need to make connections across the curriculum, across the generations and across cultures. Freedom to choose these kinds of songs is crucial to my work as a teacher. Copyright laws restrict how I can use music from, say, the Beatles. The problem with simply purchasing the music is that it often comes in formats that don’t work with my young students. I need lead sheets with simple, hopefully mostly primary chords, written in a fairly big type, and with the words beneath. I want my students to connect with the notes as well as the words. Their singing experiences should be music reading experiences as well. I can’t find music like this. Any collection may contain one or two songs that are appropriate, but their format always presents problems for the young singer and student. They are often printed in keys that don’t match the vocal ranges of my singers. They are too difficult to read because they often come in voice plus piano accompaniment formats. The easy guitar song books often include changes that are far too complicated for my young guitar players. So, in an attempt to address these issues within the current copyright world, I went about writing to publishers with suggestions for song books for the elementary music classroom, well-tested songs from all these various musical traditions. The market for such materials is as huge as the elementary school systems. But market is not my consideration. Music education of the young is my concern. I bought and examined several publications from Hal Leonard, the giant in this field. There are many terrific books in their library that might serve the classroom purpose quite well. They all have problems that would need to be addressed in order to make them truly useable. I wrote to Hal Leonard, offering suggestions along the above guidelines. I got back a terse, impersonal response, which I will paraphrase here: No input allowed. We do not consider, review or accept outside solicitations. It’s a lock without a key. I have greatly reduced access to good music because of copyrights, all held by a few megacorporations. And I am shut out of the process that might result in materials that would serve genuine educational goals, that might actually connect the students to the very world of music these corporations wish to promote. It makes me wonder whom copyright is really meant to serve.