I think about this fellow Charles Dickens. In many and perhaps most ways he was a truly admirable (but decidedly human) man. He rose from poverty and hardship and through pluck and wit made himself into a journalist and a novelist. As with many authors, he suffers sometimes from being crushed between the Scylla-like rock of high school literature classes and the Charybdis-like hard place of smug academic critical disassembly. Yet the reality is that this was a man who could write with popular appeal and with social conscience. I love his finest works, such as Great Expectations and David Copperfield. This was a man who utilized the adulation he received for good and who understood that human frailty and artistic carciature meld together to make the stuff of dreams.
Charles Dickens also proved to be a wonderful argument for (and advocate of) a literary copyright system in the USA. You see, before his day,
nobody much paid royalties of any kind to British authors of literary works. Authors were not immune from our Founding Fathers. Benjamin Franklin, I am informed, regularly published works by British authors without burdening those authors with the royalties that equity and good conscience might have dictated.
Decades later, Dickens, too, suffered from a system in which American publishers--the industry coalitions of his day--published his wildly popular works in the USA without paying a royalty. Dickens caused controversy, and ultimately helped change minds, through his campaigns for copyright enforcement in the USA. He signed a letter with other authors which read in pertinent part:
"Indeed it may be said that if royalties which ought to have been paid in the United States on the novels of Scott, Dickens, and a host of others, on the dramatic adaptations of their stories, and on the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan when first produced, were now to be handed over with compound interest, Great Britain would no longer be a debtor nation to the United States. The contra account of American authors whose royalties were not paid by English publishers over the same period would be a drop in the ocean by comparison".
This basis for a copyright system, to ensure that authors and artists receive a reasonable protection for a reasonable term, appeals to me. The current copyright laws contain many flaws, in my view, in the term extensions, in the nebulous nature of fair use, and in the absence of sufficient and properly priced licensing structures in the case of recorded music. Yet I think that one thing we in the Creative Commons community need always realize is that our way of working with liberally-licensed material presents the opportunity to remake music culture even in the absence of a single jot or comma changing in copyright law.
I hope you will forgive me a dab of polemic when I say that I've never been interested in remix culture as an excuse to appropriate RIAA culture.
Although I acknowledge the point made by those who klepto-mix, I believe that the way out of the woods of our current media/enertainment system lies in a
less dense clearing. If listeners are going to create a new culture, then they must do more than figure out how to watch pre-release out-takes from the latest big-budget adventure film. A bootlegged Axl Rose or U2 track is not the change I'm seeking. My ambitions are greater than that. Indeed, I am happy to pay (and try always to pay) for any traditional product I wish to hear.
I see a world coming in which a people just give up on traditional record labels. I don't mean misappropriate--I mean ignore. I think there is very little virtue in taking something the rights holder has not licensed one to take. One can find the RIAA litigation strategy odious without believing that everyone should find their "highest good" in copying this week's latest copyrighted retro-soul popster. I believe that to create a new music culture, we must create a new way for music to be distributed. Then the artists we love--indie and major--will make and sell their art in a new and more invigorated way.
I think in this vein, it's important to recognize that what we do is more than a way of finding cool samples to loop and to use in our sequencers. We create things that people can use for free, legally. We don't even need to tilt the windmills of civil disobedience--the college kids seem to have that covered.
What we do is no less than create some of the early set of building blocks of a sharing culture. We don't rip off the modern-day Charles Dickens. We create a sharing culture in which the next Charles Dickens can be located by the crowds, who will then "source" him to fame--and fortune.
In my view, there will always be people who will pay a reasonable sum for works of music. There will always be a need for "musical Charles Dickens" to be both enormously popular and forces for social change. The missing part of the equation now is that today's Charles Dickens, upon signing a conventional entry-level RIAA deal, would find himself bearing all the risks of self-publication, but sadly reaping a much smaller reward for all but the most amazing success.
What we do as music-makers is not likely to have any of us "be" that new musical genius. That's too much to hope for in any set. But we can create a new dialogue with listeners. The dialogue goes like this--"here is music you can download for free. Free music can sound great. You can use free music.
If you like it, you can buy more from the artist. Use it in your vimeo video. Share it with your friends. Then go see the artist live. Buy a CD-quality track. Share. Create. Experience".
What do we do to advance this change? We post songs with liberal licenses. We discuss what we hear and do with our friends on twitter or identi.ca.
We listen to netlabels, and reach out to make further connections. We figure out ways to get liberally-licensed materials in the public library,
in the hands of people with no computer or with slow dial-up connections. We don't have to preach. We just make music, and share, and play.
The way forward is to share music, to talk about sharing music, and to listen to shared music. If artists believe they can sell more songs if they first share, then they will share. Given an "in rainbows" offer, it means paying something for the work, and not downloading for free. It means seeking out live performances by people who share. It means making friends with people who share.
We're not out to rattle the chains of the ghost of Charles Dickens. We're out to exorcise Marley's Ghost from music. What we need to do can be summarized in one word, to cover the music, the dialogue, the listening and the advocacy. It's a simple solution to becoming the change we wish to make.