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The essay below was part of a roundtable on copyright issues
at The Comics Journal group blog, The Hooded Utilitarian. The entry is part of a roundtable discussion on issues surrounding copyright and free culture. The centerpiece of the week was an interview with animator, filmmaker, and free culture activist Nina Paley.

I refer to Paley’s work and the interview in my post, so for context, you might need to check out the full week’s postings. Start with this recent one by Caro on Paley’s film Sita Sings the Blues. Right before the Paley interview, Noah posted an essay on copyright, and a review of Paley’s film. And yesterday, Pallas posted a brief and snarky history of copyright.

You can find the whole roundtable here. My thanks to my friend Noah Berlatsky (who I’ve known since we were 2 or 3) for inviting me to write this:

I am a composer of what we (or at least other composers) tend to call “Concert Music”, that is, music for string quartets and orchestras and choruses and other things where you sit quietly in a darkened hall while shooting dirty looks at the old lady unwrapping a cough drop. I am expensively and elitistly-trained, and work (mostly) by commission. It is pretentious, it is fun, and I do it professionally.

Following the thread of posts this week, I’ve noticed more than a little talk about copyright essentially being created for and serving only the Publisher, and not the Creator. But what if that’s the same person? Save one or two works, I am a self-published composer; I run my own “publishing company” (it’s not, really, it’s just me and my Schedule C and a quirky company name), but while serving that function I do all the things a traditional publisher would do, including its main function: to exploit the copyrights it owns. Doing this myself pretty much avoids exactly what Nina Paley describes as the “gate-keepers”…those faceless corporate intellectual copyright owners who keep The Artist down. But I am the Artist (and the Publisher, the two are halves of each other in the case of copyright), and so even though “exploit” isn’t exactly a friendly word, it works fine, because there are in fact multiple ways to make a property (a piece of art) work for the both. Because for me, owning my works, and controlling their distribution through licensing, is how I’m able to survive as a working composer.

Most people don’t realize that when you make a work–and I’ll use music as an example for obvious reasons–your rights concerning the piece are numerous, and on several levels. I’m probably missing one or two, but once your new hypothetical work is completed (Congratulations, writing music is hard) you’re faced with what is actually a constellation of rights, all of which one, or his/her evil representative if s/he’s traditionally-published, can “exploit”:

  • The right to reproduce it (make photocopies, bound copies, whatever)
  • The right to publish and distribute it (these days you should think twice before signing that one away)
  • The right to sync it to motion-picture (this was the prickly one for Nina Paley)
  • The right to “grand” staging (use in a play or ballet or pretty much anything else with costumes)
  • The right to record it (the first time that is, and then anyone can do it as long as they pay the statutory mechanical rates. Thus, covers.)
  • The right to “prepare derivative works” from it (for music that usually means arrange it for other ensembles or instrumentations. For books and whatnot that usually means licensing the rights for the opera, or the movie)
  • The right to broadcast it (radio)
  • and the right to perform it (the biggie)

Now, which one of these would you like me to ignore because you have a yen to use my piece for your own art? My performing rights royalties alone (collected for me by my Performing Rights Agency Of Choice, ASCAP, which also collects any broadcast royalties that might happen) are actually a significant chunk of my income. Does Free Culture want to perform my piece without my collecting that? It might help to know that performing rights royalties are split 50/50 between writer and the publisher. As my own publisher, I receive 100% of them. (Another gate jumped.)

What about when someone likes my recent chorus piece, and wants to arrange it for their brass choir? I should have an open-source attitude, right? Forget the arranging license (and the fee that goes with it) and let it everyone have it, because it’s good for creativity and good for artists?

My point is that any one of these singly isn’t such a big deal, and I’m all for the big picture of helping the Cause of Creativity. But taken as a whole, managing the above list becomes this precious bundle of life-giving manna. If you’re interested in being a composer making a middle-class living that is. Which I am. I don’t teach professionally (only occasionally, usually as a guest artist at a university), so If I give any of these up, all of a sudden, composing music (ie. making Art) is my hobby, and I have to make my living outside of it. And I’ve found that the people most vocal about the benefits of free culture, or maybe most lax in shepherding the above rights, are those who choose to make their living some other way.

When asked in this Roundtable’s centerpiece interview the other day, Nina Paley replied to a question about Free Culture creating “a situation where you can’t have an artistic middle class.”:

What we have now is you can get paid for craft. You don’t get paid for art. You get paid for craft. Every animator that I know, or almost every animator that I know, works at a studio, working on shit. They know it’s shit. They do their best to not think about it, but it’s god-awful commercial shit.

Actually, I get paid for Art. I could have chosen to get paid for craft (being an orchestrator, or a commercial music writer) and decided I was actually better at making Art. And it’s a slog, let me tell you, selling Art. Because Art is, I’m sure you all noticed, incredibly subjective. Only a few out of many like my stuff, and even less love it (shocking, I know). If I expected many to like it, I’d be writing very different music, and would have a lot more wiggle room when it came to giving away my stuff for the sake of Art.

Paley also talked about art not being a profession:

No, I wanted to keep it pure, the love of the craft. When I was quitting Fluff, I said “make art not money, make art not money. Remember that.” And of course I forget periodically and get confused and think that I should be making money and not art. They’re not mutually exclusive, not at all; but you’ve got to remember: don’t do stuff that’s bad for your soul in order to make money.

I realize how mercenary this sounds, but how about making art AND money? Ultimately I’m unclear how copyleft (or free culture in general) can maintain my middle class income. As far as I can tell, the current copyright laws are what do that.

All that being said, I’m actually a fan of Free. I give away content like crazy on my website…mp3 downloads…score of the pieces as PDFs, etc. I give away CDs, even commercial ones, like candy. I give away many (expensive to produce) printed scores. Because I do believe that giving away significant content–not just useless crap, but stuff people can use–in many ways does help create that “fan base” one hears the astute bands and rock stars talk about … those fans that downloaded the album for free, but who later on shell out 300 bucks to go to the tour show and buy the $25 t-shirts. Which right there crystallizes the line for the Free argument. You don’t see “Pay what you want” Radiohead (I’m a fan) letting their devoted following into the show for free. (Or do you? I don’t really know.)

So among this noise, some content is always controlled by the owner. It’s not all free, it’s just a question of what content is deemed not free. For me, it’s the performance materials. That’s the paper (maybe someday it won’t be, I’m looking at you iPads) musicians rehearse and perform from. I rent it, I sell it, I control it. Nothing drives me more bat-shit crazy than seeing other composers give away their stuff. A website full of scores and parts… “Come play my music! I won’t charge! I just want you to play it to Get My Name Out There!” Well, a) I hope you have another job, b) you just made mine a lot harder, and c) the end user (who, sure, now knows your name) thinks your stuff isn’t even worth the paper it’s printed on.

Paley giving away her (beautiful) movie is great and all, but I can’t exactly sell “Jonathan Newman” t-shirts to make up the difference. If all the cool kids started wearing Sita pins and she turned into a pop culture icon, then it hardly matters whether anyone paid to show the film. As much as I’ve tried to make it one, that avenue is not really an option for me.

It’s true, 70 years after death is a silly amount. 50 did seem like enough–2 generations after death (“My Granddaddy made that! You can’t touch it!”)–does seem like enough time to for the family to come up with some more original content, but, as we all know, Disney had other ideas. Still, before these protections, composers did have to scramble. In 1945 Stravinsky famously changed all the half notes to quarter notes in Firebird (not really, but you get the idea) to make a newly copyrightable version for the U.S, so he could prevent the loss of income from performances there. Nothing new under the sun.

I feel Paley’s pain, dealing with copyright owners. Just ask any composer about getting text permission from a publisher for a poem he or she wants to set. Try figuring out who owns the poem in the first place. Or if it’s PD or not. I’ve actually been working on an opera for the last couple of years. The first year of it was just figuring out who actually owned the film my collaborator and I wanted to adapt. I see the problem as not necessarily the rules themselves, but the companies/businesses/corporations who collect the intellectual property and then seem to want to hoard it without licensing it, simply because it doesn’t seem worth it to expend the time/energy/resources/employees to deal. Their mistake is that it is very much worth it. Exploiting the copyright (issuing licenses and collecting the fees), is the entire point of owning the property, whether it’s small or not. When they do that, they are serving the Publisher function. It’s how or whether they’ll do it at all that’s causing problems.

And so, I’m finding the Free Culture argument suspect. If someone wanted to copy my bicycle so that there’s now “one for each of us”, my honest reaction would probably be ‘Fuck you. I spent 3 years making that bicycle. Make your own damn bicycle.’ Not exactly a constructive argument, granted, but let’s at least acknowledge that we’re not talking about a bicycle. Bicycles are not special. They are not (generally) art. Yeeesss, all art is derivative, it’s true. Art is synthesis, and some synthesis is better (brilliant, “original”) than others. But creativity can not be its own reward. We still live in, for better and often worse, a capitalist society, and in no other profession in that society is a lack of compensation expected, like it is with Art. People get paid for charity work, for goodness sakes. At some point, someone, has to charge someone else, something.

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