The Women+Film student group at Columbia College in Chicago is presenting QCO Artist-in-Residence Nina Paley‘s film Sita Sings the Blues this Thursday at 4:30pm — and Nina will be there for Q&A!  Come see a wonderful film, talk to its director, and get the pre-downloaded DVD in person, straight from the source.

4:30pm, Thursday, 6 February 2014
1104 S. Wabash Ave.
Room 502
(Note: the posters are apparently wrong — it really is room 502, not 302 as the poster says)

Poster for 2014-02-06 screening of Sita Sings the Blues at Columbia College Chicago.

QCO Education icon.Professor Howard Besser of New York University is offering a course at the Tisch School of Arts this Spring entitled Free Culture & Open Access, and he’s released the syllabus online.  It’s such a good list of introductory sources (and speakers) on the free culture movement that we wanted to point to it from here:

besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/howard/Classes/14free-culture-syllabus.pdf

Several QCO articles, and the work of our Artist-in-Residence Nina Paley, are listed in the syllabus.  Also very nice to see is the trouble Prof. Besser took toward the end of the syllabus to define plagiarism accurately and not confuse it with mere unauthorized copying (simply put: copying a song is not the same as claiming you wrote it!).  As we wrote back in 2007, this is not something NYU has always been clear on, though to be fair, the current Tisch School of the Arts Academic Integrity Policy seems to have thought about it more carefully.

We asked Prof. Besser “Will you be suggesting to the students that they release their own papers for the course under non-restrictive licenses?” and got a delightful answer:

Since 1994 I’ve been asking my students to make all their work for my classes publicly available
   http://besser.tsoa.nyu.edu/impact/ (choose “Student Papers”)
   http://www.nyu.edu/tisch/preservation/studentwork.shtml
We are now transitioning into explicit CC licenses.

It appears the students are in good hands!  Best of luck to Prof. Besser and the class.

A while ago, Danny Colligan (author of the wonderfully rigorous & thorough “What We Lose When We Embrace Copyright“) sent us a link to a new short piece he’d written, about public subsidies for artists and how to set them up so they result in more freedom, not more restriction.  It’s here:

thegreatkladderadatsch.blogspot.com/2013/07/addendum-to-what-we-lose-when-we.html

Quoting:

There are many schemes one could create to subsidize artists.  Economist Dean Baker made one such proposal, which relies on a voucher system.  Basically, taxpayers get vouchers that they can use to allocate to whatever artist(s) they want, and artists, as a requirement for receiving money through the system, are forbidden from copyrighting their work. Such a system leverages the already existing tax infrastructure, would be more than sufficient to cover artists’ costs, and does not even require any sweeping changes like elimination of all copyright (besides, of course, passage of law that would bring the program itself into existence).  In short, the proposed voucher system is a relatively unobtrusive reform that could easily be implemented within the context of the current legal and economic system.  The political effort required to enact it, however, is another story, of course.

Yes.  This shouldn’t even be a hard call.  Public money should result in public goods.

(Editor’s note: We’re cross-posting this beautiful essay from ninapaley.com; see also Nina Paley’s similarly-titled interview with Baixa Cultura from April.)


Below are the images and text of a Pecha Kucha talk I gave in Champaign, IL. The Pecha Kucha format is 20 slides x 20 seconds per slide. Hopefully the video will be online within a few months.

Transmission_10fps2

You are an information portal. Information enters through your senses, like your ears and eyes, and exits through your expressions, like your voice, your drawing, your writing, and your movements.

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In order for culture to stay alive, we have to be open, or permeable. According to Wikipedia, Permeance is “the degree to which a material admits a flow of matter or energy.” We are the material through which information flows.

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It’s through this flow that culture stays alive and we stay connected to each other. Ideas flow in, and they flow out, of each of us. Ideas change a little as they go along; this is known as evolution, progress, or innovation.

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But thanks to Copyright, we live in a world where some information goes in, but cannot legally come out.
Often I hear people engaged in creative pursuits ask, “Am I allowed to use this? I don’t want to get in trouble.”

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In our Copyright regime, “trouble” may include lawsuits, huge fines, and even jail. ”Trouble” means violence. ”Trouble” has shut down many a creative enterprise. So the threat of “trouble” dictates our choices about what we express.

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Copyright activates our internal censors. Internal censorship is the enemy of creativity; it halts expression before it can begin. The question, “am I allowed to use this?” indicates the asker has surrendered internal authority to lawyers, legislators, and corporations.

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This phenomenon is called Permission Culture. Whenever we censor our expression, we close a little more and information flows a little less. The less information flows, the more it stagnates. This is known as chilling effects.

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I have asked myself: did I ever consent to letting “Permission Culture” into my brain? Why am I complying with censorship? How much choice do I really have about what information goes in and comes out of me?

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The answer is: I have some choice regarding what I expose myself to, and what I express, but not total control. I can choose whether to watch mainstream media, for example. And I can choose what information to pass along.

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But to be in the world, and to be open, means all kinds of things can and do get in that are beyond my control. I don’t get to choose what goes in based on its copyright status. In fact proprietary images and sounds are the most aggressively rammed into our heads. For example:

“Have a holly jolly Christmas, It’s the best time of the year
“I don’t know if there’ll be snow, but have a cup of cheer
“Have a holly jolly Christmas, And when you walk down the street
“Say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet!”

12_Paley_pkncu

I hate Christmas music. But because I live in the U.S., and need to leave the house even in the months of November and December, I can’t NOT hear it. It goes right through my earholes and into my brain, where it plays over and over ad nauseum.

13.2_Paley_pkncu.013

Here are some of the corporations I could “get in trouble with” for sharing that song and clip in public. I wasn’t consulted by them before having their so-called “intellectual property” blasted into my head as a child, so I didn’t ask their permission to put it in my slide show.

14_Paley_pkncu

Copyright is automatic and there’s no way to opt out. But you can add a license granting some of the permissions copyright automatically takes away. Creative Commons, the most widespread brand of license, allows its users to lift various restrictions of copyright one at a time.

15_Paley_pkncu

The problem with licenses is that they’re based on copyright law. The same threat of violence behind copyright is behind alternative licenses too. Licenses actually reinforce the mechanism of copyright. Everyone still needs to seek permission – it’s just that they get it a little more often.

16_Paley_pkncu

Like copyright itself, licenses are often too complex for most people to understand. So licenses have the unfortunate effect of encouraging people to pay even MORE attention to copyright, which gives even more authority to that inner censor. And who let that censor into our heads in the first place?

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Although I use Free licenses and would appreciate meaningful copyright reform, licenses and laws aren’t the solution. The solution is more and more people just ignoring copyright altogether. I want to be one of those people.

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A few years ago I declared sovereignty over my own head. Freedom of Speech begins at home. Censorship and “trouble” still exist outside my head, and that’s where they’ll stay – OUTSIDE my head. I’m not going to assist bad laws and media corporations by setting up an outpost for them in my own mind.

19_Paley_pkncu

I no longer favor or reject works based on their copyright status. Ideas aren’t good or bad because of what licenses people slap on them. I just relate to the ideas themselves now, not the laws surrounding them. And I try to express myself the same way.

Transmission_10fps2

Like millions of others who don’t give a rat’s ass about copyright, I hope you join me. Make Art, Not Law.

It’s been a little over a month since the November 6th fire that destroyed the scanning center building at the Internet Archive.  No one was hurt, but as Archive founder Brewster Kahle wrote in a blog post from November 6th (emphasis added):

We lost maybe 20 boxes of books and film, some irreplaceable, most already digitized, and some replaceable.   From our point of view this is the worst part.   We lost an array cameras, lights, and scanning equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Insurance will cover some but not all of this.

The Internet Archive is far more important to the long-term interests of Internet users than, say, Facebook, and they’ll make a little go a long way.  If you can, please donate to help them recover and grow.  I just sent in a check for $200 — which really means $800 for the Archive, because…

Donations made before 2014 are being matched three-to-one by an anonymous donor!

So, if you can, please give.  There are few more obvious calls on the Internet right now!

Internet Archive, showing fire damage to scanning center building.

I can’t stress this enough — if you’re still wondering about the connection between copyright and civil liberties, nothing could make it clearer than Eben Moglen’s four-lecture series Snowden and the Future at Columbia Law School in New York City. The fourth lecture is this coming Wednesday, December 4th, at 4:30pm (Eastern US) in Room 101 of Jerome Greene Hall:

If you are in New York City on Wednesday, we strongly recommend going to that fourth and last lecture. Transcripts of the first three are already online (though I found them worth watching on video). Quoting from the third:

privacy is an ecological rather than a transactional substance

Moglen goes on to explain why very eloquently. It is a point of prime concern to copyright resistors: when every email, every post in a social network, every online communication among human beings, is subject to surveillance, then the system will always err in one direction: toward over-enforcement of already overly-strong restrictions. Surveillance naturally serves monopoly: the watcher is centralized, the watched decentralized. Thus, for example, it becomes your problem to fight fraudulent takedowns and other censorship, rather than being the censor’s problem to justify the restrictions in the first place.

Thursday, 12 Dec: Eben Moglen and Bruce Schneier:

Then on Thursday the 12th at 6:30pm ET, Prof. Moglen will be talking with the renowned security expert Bruce Schneier about what we can learn from the Edward Snowden documents and from the NSA’s efforts to weaken global cryptography, and how we can keep free software tools from being subverted. That event is also at Jerome Greene Hall; see here for details.


There is no freedom of thought without freedom of communication, and ultimately there is no freedom of communication without privacy. Privacy means secrecy, anonymity, and autonomy for individuals freely associating.

Monopoly will never argue for this. People have to do it. Copyright restrictions originated in centralized censorship and are increasingly supported by centralized surveillance. No one is analyzing the larger dynamic of surveillance better than Prof. Moglen. If you’re in New York this Wednesday and next Thursday, you know where to go.

(Previous post in this series here.)


Eben Moglen speaking.Eben Moglen will be giving a series of four public talks in New York City, entitled “Snowden and the Future”, starting Wednesday, October 4th (the other dates are Oct. 30th, Nov 13th, and Dec 4th, all Wednesdays).

All talks will take place at Columbia Law School, in room 101 of Jerome Greene Hall (map), from 4:30pm – 5:30pm.  For those who can’t be there, streaming video of the events as they take place will be available from snowdenandthefuture.info.

Why you should go to these talks:

The connection between copyright restrictions and civil liberties violations is clear and unavoidable.  We’ve written about it here (and here and here and here).  It’s been the key to the Pirate Party’s political success in Europe, and the subject of one of Nina Paley’s excellent minute memes.  Eben Moglen,  the founder and director of the Software Freedom Law Center, is one of the clearest thinkers talking about digital freedom today — and one of the most inspiring: a previous public lecture of his led directly to the creation of the Freedom Box Foundation.  He’s also a terrific speaker.  You won’t be disappointed; go, and bring all your friends.

The surveillance state is aided and enabled by information monopolists who assert that watching people’s Internet usage for unauthorized use of copyrighted material is so important that it trumps both privacy concerns and freedom of expression.  That’s why we keep a close eye on surveillance news here at QuestionCopyright.org, and encourage you to as well.

For more information on these lectures, visit snowdenandthefuture.info.

Tupi logo.

QuestionCopyright.org has pledged $500.00 to the Tupi 2D Animation Software Kickstarter campaign, and we’re posting this to help spread the word.

Please join us and the other project backers, with whatever amount you can pledge!  Remember, your pledge is only called in if Tupi reaches their $30,000 goal by September 26th.

Tupi is already runnable code.  They’re on version 0.2 right now, and their goal in this campaign is to reach their 1.0 feature set, including installers for Macintosh and Windows.  (It’s already packaged for Debian and Ubuntu GNU/Linux; I’ve installed it.)

Our Artist-in-Residence Nina Paley (who also backed Tupi’s campaign personally) explained very well why projects like Tupi are important, in her post “It’s 2013.  Do you know where my Free vector animation software is?”.  When you’re an artist, you’re dependent on your tools — and that means when someone has a monopoly over your tools, they can play havoc with your art and your livelihood.  That’s exactly what happened with Adobe’s Macromedia Flash 8.  Read Nina’s post for the details, but basically Adobe decided to remove features from their Flash authoring software, in order to sell those features separately in other programs.  As Nina points out, the problem with this isn’t just the extra expense, it’s the increase in workload and production time.  And the looming threat that they might do it again in the next version.  They can yank the rug out from under their users at any time, and there’s nothing the users can do about it, except refuse to upgrade (which becomes less and less feasible as time goes on, of course).

Free, open source programs can’t do this to their users, because no one has a monopoly over the software.  If one group puts out a version of the software that is missing important features, users will shrug and start using a competing fork that treats them better.  It also means that if enough artists need a particular bugfix or improvement in the software, they have a path to make it happen — they don’t have to be programmers, as long as they can band together and hire programmers.  Users are not vulnerable to arbitrary decisions handed down from management, they way they are with proprietary software.  (Of course, the more likely scenario is that artists would band together and just pay Tupi’s original development team to make the necessary changes.  The fact that the users have the option to go elsewhere is precisely what makes the original authors likely to be responsive to true demand — a free-market ideal that proprietary software is structurally biased against attaining.)

Tupi has another thing going for it: Nina, an extremely experienced animator who knows the major competing proprietary tool very well, has publicly volunteered to test and provide feedback to open source animation projects, including Tupi.  (Nina says “Tupi’s strength is its simplicity; it’s great for kids and anyone new to animation. It doesn’t yet have the power I need to produce feature films, but its development is a good thing for all of us. …”)

So please help spread the word about Tupi’s Kickstarter campaign! (Here are links to retweet or redent our posts about it.)  You can read more about Tupi here, and this is their campaign video:

After an additional year of production work, our free-film project “Lunatics!” is back up on Kickstarter. We have a lot more done – some “finished” animation, voice acting and soundtrack mixing, a lot more completed 3D models, including some of the toughest mech modeling, and several characters. We are still 100% free-culture, using CC By-SA license for everything we release, and we’re still open-source, making our models and other elements available to the commons. We use only music with By-SA compatible licenses, and we are working entirely with free-software, especially Blender, Kdenlive, and Audacity.

The Kickstarter video starts with our recently completed “teaser” demo video, which is meant to show at least one possible rendering and final animation style for the project (though we’re still experimenting). This version is toon-shaded, but lacks outlining — I’m actually pretty happy with the way that looks. The limited PoV/hyperreal concept for this trailer was originally conceived to minimize the number of 3D assets we’d use (originally it was all PoV and didn’t show even show the character). However, as the video goes on to show, we actually have quite a few other models, including the Soyuz exterior completed now.

As I outlined in my update on licensing and business models, “Lunatics!” is entirely under the same free CC By-SA 3.0 as Wikipedia and other bastions of free culture. Unlike several other “free” film projects, we’ve actually decided to be strict about the music licensing as well — every piece of music we use is under a By-SA compatible license so that we can release it to you under By-SA.

An important part of our business model — creator-endorsed post-release sales — is a concept born right here on QuestionCopyright.org.

We’re also part of a growing group of projects relying on and promoting free-software tools like Blender, Kdenlive, Audacity, Inkscape, and Gimp to realize our concept.

Bob Ostertag at work.

This piece by Bob Ostertag was originally published at On The Commons. We’re reprinting it here because it’s a great description of exactly how distribution networks are still strongly weighted against free-as-in-freedom. The cost of maintaining the monopoly sidewalk is that freedom can grow only in the cracks — and the increasingly eager auto-detection bots keep “repairing” the cracks, because their masters only see the value of the sidewalk. Bob is an active performing and recording musician, and a long-time friend of QuestionCopyright.org (he was one of our founding Board members). His biography is at the end of this article.

We of course hope Bob makes plenty of money from A Book of Hours on CD Baby — there’s no contradiction between freedom-friendly licensing and making money! And yes, we recognize the contradiction between his original Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial licensing and the freedom of other artists to pursue the same strategy Bob describes below while incorporating his music in their works. In the usual QCO so-transparent-it’s-kind-of-edgy fashion, we’ll discuss this with Bob and see if he’s open to using truly free licensing while still selling his music on CDBaby and similar sites [Update 2013-08: He was, and we’re now working with him to relicense his music under free licenses wherever possible.]. But the outcome of that conversation doesn’t affect his message below, which is that right now freedom is much harder work than it needs to be, because the major distribution networks still regard it as a weed, and because the few distributors that prioritize a direct audience-artist financial connection are small and don’t have the clout — yet — to change how the sidewalks are maintained.

Update from Bob Ostertag

[This update also comes from the On The Commons article. —QCO Editors] Bob Ostertag’s article (below) about how the music industry makes it increasingly difficult for musicians to share their work online for free got a massive response on On The Commons. Ostertag shares some of the reactions here.

My article seems to have fostered a lots of discussion on OTC, on FaceBook, and around the web. Many shared their own experiences with unjustified “take-downs” of their music off the Web. For example, this form Eva Orgidea:

“Last week Youtube added a copyright notice in one of my videos (a mere sound performance I did in a gallery) saying part of the content was owned by Harry Fox agency. I felt so offended, that I disputed the claim and simultaneously deleted the video. I do not want, in any shape or form, to get involved into those huge corporate names… Nevertheless although I removed the video I am aware that if they do not find my dispute legitimate, they will terminate my Youtube account.”

Others wrote in defense of the people at SoundCloud, which they argue are doing their best given the circumstances, and that their dispute resolution system is actually fast and fairly simple. But beyond discussion of which music and video hosting sites are “good guys” or “bad guys,” the bigger point is that there is a strong incentive for “false positives” built into the whole netbot-auto-take-down system. The software that SoundCloud, YouTube, and others across the web began as a service used by the big labels to analyze music content directly at CD pressing plants to prevent unauthorized mass duplication, That system is now applied to everyone. It is strongly in the interest of the big corporate labels to over-detect rather than under-detect. The result is a system in which the interest of the handful of superstars of the world in not missing out on a penny of their millions in royalties trumps the interest of the vast majority of musicians in getting their music heard.

On YouTube, artists the netbots have identified as violating copyright may now be offered a choice of taking down their video or allowing the alleged copyright holder to advertise on the page. The incentive for false positives here is even stronger, since the more false-positive takedown notices get sent, the more free advertising is muscled from people they have no relationship to: legal, artistic, or otherwise.

Finally, there is one clarification in order concerning my account of the YouTube takedown of Jacques Sirot’s video, which we ultimately traced to netbots operating on behalf of the Seeland label associated with the group Negativland. My intention was to use that story to illustrate how easy it is for copyright-policing-by-netbot to get out of hand, not to question the integrity of Seeland or Negativland. I consider Negativland to be innovative artists, trustworthy collaborators, upstanding individuals, and personal friends. When we finally figured out what had happened, the Negativland people were as horrified as I was and acted immediately to resolve the situation.

Why I No Longer Give Away My Music

How the digital music biz makes it difficult for musicians to offer free downloads

In 2006 I gave my music away. That music had previously existed on CDs and LPs (yes, I began making music in the days of vinyl and tape). I moved all of it to the Web, downloadable for free.

Today, seven years later, I see that giving away music for free is not as easy as I had imagined. In some ways, it turns out to be impossible. The reasons why this is so say a lot about creativity,property, and power in a networked world of corporately owned digital commons policed by netbots and stochastic algorithms.

My music is now available under a Creative Commons “Attribution-Non Commercial 2.5 License,” which allows anyone to download it, copy it, remix it, slice and dice it, and so on. They just can’t sell it, or profit from it. If they incorporate it into music of their own, they should note that they did so, and since they used my music as their source material for free, they should not charge for their music either.

But that’s all just words. In the real world, I have no resources with which to enforce those conditions. And as we shall see, the problems I have encountered in this endeavor have been entirely in another direction.

Deciding to do this was the easy part, since the “record business” never worked for me in the first place. This was no big surprise, as the record business never worked for most musicians. What is surprising is how many musicians seem either to not know this or to have forgotten it.

The whole structure of the industry put corporate interests first, musician interests a distant second. Actually, this is not quite true. The biggest stars get taken care of pretty well. Lady Gaga should have no complaints. But many people would be shocked to know how many bands whose names they know and CDs they bought never saw any money from those sales. For musicians like myself making “non-commercial” music which does not fit easily any any genre or marketable category, the situation was hopeless from the start.

My income comes from concerts, not recordings (I have performed internationally since 1978). For most of my audience, before the Internet came along just finding my recordings was a major undertaking. Concerts in various parts of the world were often attended by people who travelled long distances to get to the show, hoping to find some recording for sale which they had heard about but were never able to find.

Enter the Internet. Suddenly, world-wide “distribution” of audio recordings – which had formerly required an infrastructure of pressing plants, trucks, ships, planes, warehouses, retail shops, accountants, lawyers, and more – became instantly available to everyone at the push of a button.

Who needs the “record business”? What was a difficult, tentative, and ultimately impossible decision for big name groups like Radiohead was a no-brainer for me. I wrote an essay called The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician that was widely read and commented upon. I was invited on to the board of a non-profit called Question Copyright, which is all about trying to create a real digital commons.

The first thing that happened after ‘freeing’ my music was that people began to access it in far greater numbers than previously possible. My first release to bypass the CD stage and go directly to the Internet for free download, w00t, was downloaded about 40,000 times. And the total downloads of all my recordings has gone well over 100,000. (Since numerous sites now offer my music for downloading I do not have an accurate total).

But I have learned that “accessing” music and actually listening to it are two different things. Free downloading has created a kind of collector or hoarder who is unique to the digital age. In my university classes, I query my students about their downloading habits, and everyone who is deeply into music has figured out how to download music for free, despite the best efforts of the record business to stop them, and have far, far more music downloaded to their laptops and iPods than they will ever have time to listen to in their entire lives. Gigabytes and gigabytes of meaningless data. These same students invariably report that they have actually listened to all the music they paid for.

If a virtual tree falls in a virtual forest and no one opens the file, does it still make a sound? This is a real conundrum. If by “commons” we mean, say, communally owned pastures in England, we are talking about finite resources that were valued as such and cared for accordingly by the surrounding community. But if by “commons” we mean a vast expanse of server farms that seems capable of expanding without meaningful limit, then we are speaking of something very different. Have I cheapened my music by not monetizing its recorded artifact?

For most people for whom new music is an important part of their lives, however, the most relevant commons has become iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and so on – Web sites that allow the user to begin from their favorite music and then link outwards to music that has been somehow identified as similar. College kids and fanatical collectors might work late into the night figuring out how to get their files for free, but for most people, the sites listed above are the main way they discover new music. And these sites do not accept music that is free. They are all about making money. By giving away my music for free, I seem to have shut myself out of the new “commons”.

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Copyright

Jacques Sirot is an independent French artist and film-maker. He used my music as the soundtrack for one of his recent films, as I have made clear he (and everyone else) is free to do. Making sure to dot every i and cross every t, when he posted his film on YouTube he noted: This Creative Commons film uses Bob Ostertag’s music, Say No More, which is distributed with a Creative Commons license; its usage has moreover been personally agreed by the musician.

Yet soon after the film was posted, it was blocked for copyright violation, with a notice that “it may have content that is owned or licensed by IODA [Independent Online Distribution Alliance].” Jacques appealed:

“This video contains elements protected by rights of the author in question, but with the appropriate license or written authorization of the holder of those rights. Bob Ostertag was notified of this use of his music (which he distributes via “Creative Commons”) and granted his authorization. I believe in good faith that the claims described above are not valid, and that I hold the necessary rights to the contents of my video, for reasons cited. I have not knowingly made a false declaration and am not voluntarily using this contestation procedure in an abusive manner to undermine third party rights. I understand that the forwarding of fraudulent contestations can lead to the closure of my YouTube account.”

He received the following reply:

Dear Jacques Sirot,

IODA has reviewed your dispute and reinstated its copyright claim on your video, “TSUNAMI”. For more information, please visit your Copyright Notice page.

Yours sincerely,
The YouTube Team

Working with scholar Sally-Jane Norman, Jaques spent considerable time researching the matter, and eventually contacted me, and I spent hours more looking into it. Finally I figured out what had happened.

Years back, I released some CDs on Seeland, a label run by the notorious media guerrilla group Negativland. Negativland was famously sued for a parody of a song by U2, which made them into icons of free expression and resistance to absurd claims about the reach of copyright. I had left their label years ago when I put my music under the free Creative Commons license. As is often the case with tiny, underfunded labels, there had been a disagreement about accounting, with the Negativland people arguing I owed them money for unsold CDs that were returned by stores. Just the sort of thing that led me to give up on small labels and give away my music. Well, it turned out that, without informing me, Seeland had continued to collect royalties on that music in an effort to recoup what they claimed to be their losses. Through a byzantine circuit of contracts and enforcements, the banishment of Jacques Sirot’s video from YouTube for copyright violation, for using my music which I had given him and everyone else explicit permission to use, was the result of a secret account collecting royalties on my music operated by a label that had built its reputation on resistance to overblown copyright claims!

Kanye West vs. Etienne Noreau-Hebert

There are some Web sites, like YouTube, SoundCloud and BandCamp, which are set up to allow free music and video sharing. But even these are problematic. They are policed by “netbots,” software algorithms that constantly search for sounds allegedly owned by someone or other. My friend Etienne Noreau-Hebert recently uploaded a new work to SoundCloud, to share with others for free, and received back the following reply:

Our automatic content protection system has detected that your sound “121223-Muhamarra-v0.3” may contain the following copyright content: “Love Lockdown (as made famous by Kanye West)” by Future Hit Makers Of America, owned by Big Eye Music. As a result, its publication on your profile has been blocked.

Kanye West, of course, is a major figure in the world of corporate hip hop, with megahit records, movies, a fashion line, and more than 30 million paid digital downloads of his songs. Etienne is an unknown musician making abstract electronic music he would like to share with others for free. There is nothing in his music that sounds even remotely like Kanye West. But some netbot has judged that Etienne has infringed on Kanye’s rights, and so Etienne’s composition is banned from SoundCloud. Perhaps there is someone at SoundCloud to whom Etienne could appeal, if he dug through their web site, sent the emails, waited through various levels of phone robots, etc. Perhaps not. But Etienne is giving away his music for free. Where is he going to get all that time? Or rather, he is trying unsuccessfully to give away his music for free.

Little guys like Etienne are not the only victims of netbot police. The YouTube live stream of Michelle Obama’s speech during the last Democratic Convention was suddenly shut down midsentence by YouTube’s “preemptive content filters,” leaving viewers staring at a black screen with text informing them that: This video contains content from WMG, SME, Associated Press (AP), UMG, Dow Jones, New York Times Digital, The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA), Warner Chappel, UMPG Publishing and EMI Music Publishing, one or more of whom have blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.

If you want to know who rules the roost on the Internet, that list would be a good place to start. A live webcast of the Hugo Awards for science fiction writers was blocked when a netbot ruled that the stream was showing copyrighted film clips. This was true, but the Hugo Awards had secured permission to use them. No one told the netbots. YouTube’s “preemptive content filters” repeatedly blocked footage from NASA’s Curiosity rover Mars landing, even though the images are in the public domain.

Music for Almost Free

My newest work is A Book of Hours, featuring the extraordinary vocal talents of Shelly Hirsch, Phil Minton, and Theo Bleckman, as well as saxophone legend Roscoe Mitchell. I have decided not to give this one away, but to use a relatively new service with the unlikely name of CDBaby. CDBaby will host the files for download on their site, with all the now-standard ability to share, comment, and so on. But more importantly, they will place the music on iTunes, Pandora, Spotify, and so on. I have to pay them for this service, and they will not accept my work unless I charge for it. I have chosen a very low amount: $1.99 for nearly an hour of music. All my previous works will remain available on my web site for free.

In a way this feels like a retreat from the across-the-board music-for-free stance I have taken for the last seven years. But really I am just trying to keep my head above water in the digital deluge.

Bob Ostertag’s newest work, A Book of Hours, can be purchased here at CD Baby

About Bob Ostertag

Composer, performer, historian, instrument builder, journalist, activist, kayak instructor, Bob Ostertag has published 21 CDs of music, two movies, two DVDs, and three books. His writings on contemporary politics have been published on every continent and in many languages. Electronic instruments of his own design are at the cutting edge of both music and video performance technology. He has performed at music, film, and multi-media festivals around the globe.

His radically diverse collaborators include the Kronos Quartet, avant garder John Zorn, heavy metal star Mike Patton, jazz great Anthony Braxton, dyke punk rocker Lynn Breedlove, drag diva Justin Bond, Quebecois film maker Pierre Hébert, and others. He is currently Professor of Technocultural Studies and Music at the University of California at Davis. For more information, BobOstertag.com