Do Copyright Laws Protect Ideas or Limit the Sharing of Knowledge?

// Posted by on 03/06/2014 (5:26 PM)

I found our readings and discussions about copyright laws and infringement this week to be some of the most interesting and intricate material we have tackled to date in this class. I agree with many of the ideas set forth in Rip: A Remix Manifesto. The first point of the manifesto, that the present always builds upon the past, can hardly be disputed. Everything we enjoy today can most likely be traced back to developments made over time on an original idea: types of clothing, types of houses, the way we read and conduct research, etc. After watching the documentary in its entirety and reading both the “GoldiBlox” and “Beauty and the Beast” case studies, points two and three of the manifesto (“the past always tries to control the future” and “our future is becoming less free”)  are also difficult to deny. Brett Gaylor’s main point in his documentary is that the intimidation factor imposed by large companies prevents many creative ideas from ever materializing as people are too afraid of getting sued and having to pay large sums of money in legal fees and copyright fees. While Girl Talk has not been arrested, he and his family live with a constant sense of nervousness that it could happen at any moment. Copyright laws were originally created with the good intention of protecting one’s ideas. However, it is my personal belief that the laws now impose too much control over the freedom and exchange of ideas, and while they should not be eliminated, there should definitely be some regulation. In the case of music, I do not believe that mash-ups such as the ones Girl Talk produces should be slammed for copyright infringement. While the songs he produces mix popular songs together, the song he makes is a completely original work and should therefore be considered to be his own. Furthermore, many mash-up artists and listeners do not hear a mash up and suddenly disregard the work of the original artists. During the documentary, Gaylor shows a Girl Talk concert without playing the music as his fair use argument had expired. He expresses how much he wishes the viewers could hear the show as Girl Talk “dropped ACDC in the middle of the Black-Eyed Peas. People were blogging about it for weeks.” Many people, myself included, clearly hear mash ups and still credit the work of the original artists while appreciating the originality of the mash up as well. This goes along with the way Girl Talk compares what he does to science. Copyrights, patents, and the like “hold back knowledge exchange” as they limit the ability of ideas to build off of each other. In science, this is particularly detrimental as collaboration is necessary to achieve discovery. A scientist might be close to developing a cure for cancer but cannot proceed if part of his or her idea is patented. In my opinion, copyright control to this degree is detrimental to our society.

There are cases, however, wherein it is right to impose copyright. One case of this might be when someone tries to take an idea that stands for a clear message and manipulate that same idea to represent something completely different. This happened in the case of Mickey Mouse, as discussed in the documentary. Walt Disney is considered to be brilliant because he “took work that was in the public domain and updated it, and made it relevant for our age.” His work “continued the conversation of a culture.” One of the most famous examples of this is the creation of Mickey Mouse, which stemmed from Steamboat Bill. Walt took the idea of Steamboat Bill, but made it completely different as a mouse played the main character, and Mickey soon became the symbol of Disney as a company that produced wholesome family fun. Because Mickey so clearly stood for a company with a wholesome message, it is not right for someone to take Mickey and try to turn him into a “drug dealing revolutionary” as a comment on society. While they had Mickey stand for something different than the original, using the exact same character to convey a quite opposite message than intended by the original is stealing a character. Looking at the case of GoldieBlox and the Beastie Boys presented in Wired, I believe the Beastie Boys are in the right due to the company’s overreaction and the original intent of the Beastie Boys. In their letter, the remaining Beastie Boys wrote that they

“were very impressed by the creativity and message behind your ad. We strongly support empowering young girls, breaking down gender stereotypes and igniting a passion for technology and engineering.” However, the letter continued, “your video is an advertisement that is designed to sell a product, and long ago, we made a conscious decision not to permit our music and/or name to be used in product ads. When we tried to simply ask how and why our song ‘Girls’ had been used in your ad without our permission, YOU sued US.”

Under the fair use clause, it is alright to use copyrighted material in the name of exercising free speech to make a point. The song is used in the ad as background music clearly trying to appeal to a generation of adults who listened to the Beastie Boys as teenagers, who now likely have young children. As this is an appeal rather than an argument, it would not be considered fair use. The main area where I agree with the Beastie Boys over GoldieBlox is when they state that they agreed to never permit their music to be used in product ads. As the original creators of the song, it is their right to include that provision and it should not be violated. GoldieBlox overreacted by suing the Beastie Boys in response to their innocent question.

What do you think about these cases and copyright regulation? In our group, we discussed artists only having to pay fees if they begin turning a profit from something that incorporates someone else’s work. Do you think this is plausible? Or are copyright laws succeeding at keeping ideas safe?

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Alexandra said...

This information on copyright infringement and all of the laws that accompany this topic are very interesting and will play an interesting role in our future as the internet brings us further and further into unchartered waters. I found the case of GoldieBlox vs. the Beastie Boys particularly interesting as well. I disagree with your opinion though, and I believe that despite the wishes the band to keep their music out of advertisement, GoldieBlox use of the song falls under the “fair use” clause, which gives them the legal ability to use the song in their commercial. While this opinion may not seem very respect of the last will and testament of Adam Yauch, who asked that their music not be used for any commercial reasons, I feel that this situation does legally fall under the fair use clause. Often times legally correct decision can leave a dissatisfied feeling among people. Sometimes what is legal is not always what leaves people feeling the most pleasant. Giving the wishes of the recently deceased band member, one would assume that GoldieBlox would still refrain form using the song. Although I do believe if this case had gone to court, they would have ruled to uphold the fair use clause and give GoldieBlox the right to use their parody song in their commercial.

// 03/18/2014 at 2:26 pm