Lyrics, Copyrights, and Cease-and-desist orders

Copyright is a tricky thing. When you have created something on your own, you want to keep it. The least one usually asks for is that people give credit where credit is due. When the creative work is what one does for a living there is of course a healthy interest too.

Thus, everyone who acts to protect what is his own should have a good backup from the law and from society. 

In principle. 

Because, there is also the other side of the coin: When something become popular, it will sooner or later enter societies mind. "Here's looking at you, Kid." for example is one of these instantly recognizeable things. When people say it, or let some character say it, a hefty percentage of us will know how this is meant, and what emotions and visuals should be attached. The movie Casablanca did that to us. The same applies to song lyrics, a good deal of pictures, and so on. 

Our culture has come to be dependant on citing something. 

And the web has become the ultimate aid for doing this. 

But there is an ugly side to this: I have shamelessly stolen that audio file. I haven’t paid a cent to for it. And I don’t even know if they have paid Bogey, his heirs, or whoever holds the copyright on this particular soundclip for it. Maybe I committed a theft of intellectual property, I don‘ t know. 

Thankfully there is a way out of this dilemma: Fair use. End Users are supposed to be allowed to cite, and to reproduce copyrighted material to a certain extend. Because one cannot forbid people telling their friends about that movie they saw yesterday. Or singing along a song they hear in the radio. Or rehashing the latest episode of Desperate Housewives for their coworker who missed it because someone sat on his TiVo.

We need this fair use, or a lot of common conversation topics would cease to exist. 

Alas, where to draw the line ? The music industry draws it quite early: Flood of warning notices swamps German lyrics pages. There are countless webpages that have small or big collection of lyrics. Strictly speaking, this is a copyright infringement; the lyrics belong to the artists who wrote them, or to the music companies, who own them. Personally I think someone is overstepping the bounds here. 

But copyright, intellectual property, and even brand property are powerful tools. Either for making money but also for blocking undesired content. (As an example, see the Oil Of Elf case.) For some time now, legislative seems to be in favour of granting more and more of these „property rights“ to large corporations and their ilk. The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act is a popular example for this. 

Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself. But these bills aren’t protecting a poor artists against exploitation. Instead they simply maintain the status quo. If this would just mean that we have to continue to pay for that CD with „I got you babe“, this blog entry wouldn’t exist. 

I believe though that this path will lead us to a world where we can’t choose culture anymore, but have to take what we get served (drastically speaking). Culture is not only about inventing new things, but also about citing, imitiating, ultimately: Copying. 

Alwys respect other peoples work. 

Pay them for it. 

And then copy it.

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