Saturday, March 12, 2005

Silent Girl Scouts, part three

This is the third and last in this ASCAP/copyright series. I was hoping more people would be interested enough to share their ideas in the comments, but then Blogger's comments went down. Anybody?

According to an article written in 2002 by Jonathan Zittrain, Calling off the copyright war, "... a chastened ASCAP now charges the Girl Scouts a symbolic $1 per year. They wisely receded [sic] on attempting to collect a full profit, while making it clear that the profit remains legally theirs to collect."

He suggests the Girl Scout disaster may have played some part in the passing of the Fairness in Music Licensing Act of 1998 and says:
At the time, copyright holders saw this law as a stinging defeat because it eliminated some aspects of a monopoly whose logic knows few limits. Indeed, once one embraces turning ideas into saleable items, there is no easy end point. One can claim that a songwriter should be paid when her song is broadcast over the radio, and again when the radio is played in a restaurant - and again when the song is sung by a listener to a group of friends.

It was this reasoning that inspired ASCAP to send thousands of letters to summer camps across the country, demanding hundreds of dollars in annual royalties from, among others, Girl Scouts, presumably for songs sung around the campfire.

If the term of copyright were closer to the 14 to 28 years the framers of the Constitution originally intended, people would become all too used to the idea that the restrictions on using ideas were truly temporary, there only long enough to convince non-blockheads to write in the first instance.
I was amused by Zittrain's quote from Samuel Johnson: "No [one] but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Uh, hmm, I guess we bloggers, churning out words by the tens of thousands, are an exception to that rule. Blogging is not a get-rich occupation. No matter how many ads you plaster on your site.

Other no-guarantee paths include songwriting, novel writing, sculpture, macrame, and the rest of the arts. A young person inquiring about going into a creative field will probably be told: "Don't do it unless you have to. Don't do it unless there's absolutely nothing else."

Yes, certainly, somebody is going to strike it rich. More wealthy and/or famous artists will arise. But it's like your chances of being born. On the one hand, the chance of somebody (actually, lots of somebodies) being born: 100%. On the other hand, the chances of one of those somebodies actually being you: vanishingly small.

What if your parents had watched three more minutes of tv that night? Bingo, somebody else, not you, gets born. Somebody wins the lottery, right? But it's not going to be you, sucker. Remember:

"Lottery: a tax on people who are bad at math."

I've been a musician all my life. I've written books and recorded cds (and cassettes and albums before there WERE cds). I used to be a little bitter when people came up to me and asked ME to BOOTLEG my OWN RECORDINGS for them, or when they innocently would show up for singing lessons with xeroxes of xeroxes of songs I had written and/or arranged clutched in their hands. But I've accepted it - the xerox machine is mightier than the copyright notice. How long can I stay indignant?

It's for somebody else with more experience in the sciences to talk about the mad rush to patent every single living or inanimate thing or any function ever observed on earth, in order to lock up future profits for a given concern. We're lucky patent law wasn't around when they invented the wheel.

In closing, though I know this is going to sound annoying to people who actually are trying to make a living with their art, for me it's been less stressful to live by the closing quote of the Zittrain article:

"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." (Thomas Jefferson)

Also see part two and part one of this series...

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At 7:26 AM, Blogger MommaK said...

Very interesting post. I was a girl scout troop leader for a few years and I recall that we were only allowed to teach the camp songs orally. We could not type out the words and pass them out to the girls. It made our annual "song & dance" very difficult as we had 20 songs to learn in a short amount of time.

I love the TJ quote, btw. I'm here via Michele today, but I have been here before. You always have something interesting to say. Hope you have a great weekend.

At 9:44 AM, Blogger Deek Deekster said...

every time we sang the campfire songs, we changed them... so are we owed royalties for our inventive new versions? i too rely on the workings of copyright for some of my earnings, but it's widely misunderstood and badly applied. i like your piece.

At 9:52 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a writer I agree with much of what you said. However in this instance where you are speaking of songs where the artist is no longer alive, or it has been so widely used in public venues such as movies, television shows, on the radio... it seems a bit ridiculous and militant. The whole point of art of any kind is to be enjoyed. It is an expression of our aesthetic selves. Hopefully we can be compensated for the work and creativity that we poor into it, but ultimately I do not think any artist is complete until their art is enjoyed by another. What' the point of a song if not to sing along and to dance. What's the point of a painting or sculpture unless it inspires the person viewing it? What's the point of a story or poem if it does not captivate the reader, sweep them away and excite them so much that they have to tell someone else about it? These in themselves are rewards and royalties for the artist too.
I am a firm believer in artist's being compensated for their work and ideas. There is no question about that. But sometimes I think we get so caught up in the injustice of monetary compensation we forget the reason we created the work to begin with... an expression of ourselves in hopes of inspiring others.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger Restless Angel said...

I tried stopping in yesterday during bloggers issues. And then this morning I noticed your comment at my spot. I've enjoyed what I've read so far, and I'll definitely be coming back! Now, for the coffee (brief pause) oh wait, I don't drink it. Hmmm, I sense a minor dilemma brewing here.

At 11:48 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

The copyright thing always confuses me. On the one hand artists should be paid. On the other hand, there are some huge corporations making a lot more money than the artists, from the artists' work.

I want the ARTISTS to be paid. ('Artists' meaning painters, writers, songwriters, etc etc)

At 12:35 PM, Blogger Michele said...

I love that quote and for the most part agree with it. However, it is difficult when you your career is word-based to have others use or take your words.

A wise friend once told me that a person who takes the ideas of others simply proves that they are limited in their ability to have uniqie ideas of their own.

At 4:17 PM, Anonymous honestyrain said...

you mean i'm not the only one who sin't getting rich on blogging? whew. ;)

i agree with Jefferson in an idealistic world.

copyright is a finicky business and i guess this is kind of how i'll sum up my thoughts: don't steal my words, pass them off as your own and make money on it because i'll find you and piss in your boots. but the girl scouts are free to read anything i write out loud around the fire.

minus the word piss because girl scouts shouldn't say piss or other four letter words like fart or pooh or blog.

At 2:05 AM, Blogger Maura said...

Hi melinama! Thanks for stopping by and commenting on Friday -- I'm glad I had a chance to come back by here and read some more. Your story on George Dawson was so touching and inspiring.


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