Free Culture now there’s a interesting notion to look at now isn’t it. Free Culture is also the name of a book by the lawyer and political thinker Lawrence Lessig. It would be outside of the scope of this blog to provide a review, though certain aspects of that post might take on certain review-esque elements. That is most certainly not what I am seeking to accomplish tough. Rather – I would like to touch on the train of thought it got me going down and the realizations it forced me to make especially in regards to independent bands and the development of culture in a scene that is far too often ignored and even swept under the rug. The usage of culture is crucial for young artists, and I’m sorry to say we might all be screwed.

The core point of Lessig’s work is that copyright law, as it exists today is both overtly encroaching and furthermore apparently allows for copyrights to continue indefinitely. Obviously – neither of these situations are ideal and can lead to a serious struggle for independent creators who can’t afford to fight the legal battles that make these things worth fighting. Oh yes – did I mention that because of lawyer fees there is basically no way around copyright infringement? Yeah – that happened. Simply put – modern changes to copyright law, perhaps most notably the 1999 Digital Millenium Act, have set it up such that to use any copyrighted material makes you a criminal. And god forbid pirate any of it you felon you! While steps certainly have been made since the early 2000’s when Lessig wrote his book the freedom of culture is still an important thing to consider.

Given the advent of streaming one can certainly say that we are in a much better place in terms of cultural freedom today than we were a few years ago. Now we can access all manner of copyrighted content with services like Netflix, Spotify or Audible. Now there are pay gates for these things but they tend to be fairly reasonable and allow us to maintain the ability to learn from culture. That being said – this should not be taken as the be all and end all. As any hip hop producer or film music supervisor can tell you, access is not the same as use. That’s where this whole thing stats to break down. If all culture is just developed by ripping off other people then maybe, just maybe we should be able to grant these rights to people.

The reason that copyright laws are such a ridiculous clusterfuck is tied back into that notion of monopolies that we discussed on a previous piece here. 98% of currently existing copyrighted material is making no profit. For most pieces of content their commercial life is over after a year. That being said – given the system of lobbying that we have in place today it is the vested financial interest of say… the Dr Seuss estate to invest money into lobbying for copyright law to be extended. After all, if they are making $100,000 a year off the estate and see that they have an opportunity to extend the period over which they make said $100,000 then OF COURSE they are going to invest a significant portion of that money into extending copyright law.

“But Matt” you say, “I don’t sample anyone’s music and I just want to get my movies in film and TV, so aren’t copyright laws helping me?” On the surface yes. Inasmuch as they are directly impacting the work you have out at present, but this is one of those things that can’t always be handled in a cases by case basis. Even if it can… think about it. Don’t you have a riff or two that could arguably be said was ripped off of a band you cite as an influence? That’s not you committing plagiarism, that’s simply how the human brain works. People derive a lot more from their influences than I think anyone truly understands, and that could hurt you in the long run. No one wants to have to deal with massive corporate interests choking out indie bands.

Furthermore, say your director friend gets a break and wants to give you a few hundred bucks to have your song in their movie? Well – if you’re signed to a record label you’re never going to see that money. Sure you might own the synch license and the copyright, that is to say, the song itself. But generally it’s your label who are going to own the masters – and you won’t be allowed to make any masters outside of your recording contract. If the label wants more than the few hundred bucks that your director friend has to offer… well then it looks like you’re just out of luck. And THAT is just the beginning of the problems that copyright laws foists upon indie bands. It prevents you from engaging in financially viable opportunities, simply because of the lawyer fees. In other words – they have made all of us criminals, and though that’s kind of badass on the surface, it mostly means that there might be something a little screwy with the system.

Lessig provides a few suggestions in the text as to how we could fix these problems – usually boiling down to an online database that would serve as a way for commercially viable copyrights to endure and would allow commercially dead content to pass into the public domain more easily. This might be a start to an enduring problem that no one REALLY knows how to fix. But truly truly I say to you, this is only the beginning. Limitations on culture, while occasionally valid, ultimately hurt everyone in the long run and if we want to have a system that maintains copyrights in the internet age then we are going to need to radically change how we perceive the value and utility of content in a time where it merely exists as a bunch of 1’s and 0’s.