Gootchy gootchy goo
December 8th 2011
Let’s say that one day, I’m at a yard sale, and I spot a crate full of 78s. They’re cracked and warped, but there’s about 50 of them in there, missing labels and so on, and because I’m a fan of Swing Era music, I buy the whole lot for 25 cents and take it home, hoping to find a jewel in the rough.
And I find a song, “Boobie Baby” by Gootch McKinnerson. Gootch was an old jazz trumpet player who died in a freak accident in Europe in 1943 when, stoned, he picked up and tried to lick a wolverine. But before that, he cut several records, including “Boobie Baby,” which jazz aficionados all agree is the greatest example of trumpet playing by a man who thought he was playing a tuba in the history of jazz.
It came out in 1937, and made the top 100 for a week. Then it was quickly forgotten, and shortly after Gootch’s death, the record company went bust, and Gootch’s family, who were all also jazz musicians, had forgotten by 1947 that Gooch had ever existed. So “Boobie Baby” has a mythical status among jazz fans. There’s a couple of old jazzmen from New Orleans who could hum a few bars once, but beyond that, nobody knows quite what it sounds like.
Excited beyond words, I hook up my turntable to my computer, and feed the music in. I have to adjust the timing to make 33 1/3 play at 78, and then I go through and clean the inevitable hisses and pops, and play with the EQ a little bit to bring up the horn some.
It definitely sounds like the type of music a man who would lick a wolverine might sound like if he believed his trumpet was a tuba, and it might just be the greatest piece of music of the twentieth century. Shaking with a mixture of excitement and disbelief, I save it to my harddrive as a FLAC, and, aware that the drive is starting to make clunking noises, I also save it onto a DVD and on a flash drive.
At this point, I have committed a felony, punishable by five years in federal prison and $125,000 in fines. And I didn’t even have to lick a wolverine to do it.
There’s no injured parties. Gooch is dead, the record company went broke, and there’s no heirs and assigns. Nobody has standing to sue me.
But it’s a criminal violation, not a civil one, and so all the state needs is probable cause. Mind you, I haven’t claimed credit for the work, I haven’t sold copies of it to anyone, and at this point I’ve done nothing that lies outside of “personal use,” using nothing but a used copy that I purchased legally, and copied it onto three spots instead of two.
In a sane nation, I wouldn’t have committed a crime. But this is the corporate states of America, so I would do more time than all the financial managers involved in the crash of 2008 combined.
The government, at the behest of corporations, is trying to increase the stranglehold corporations have on information, with bills called the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House, and Protect IP in the Senate. Both would give the government power to shut down any website that had material suspected of copyright violation, or even links to other sites with such violations. And if I took my copy of Gooch’s record and uploaded it to torrents to share with everyone, not only could I get five years and be fined $125,000, but any site linking to my upload could be shut down by the government, in the name of freedom of speech.
It really has gone beyond absurd. There are private companies that search the web, looking for suitable candidates for suits over copyright violations. That’s where you hear horror stories of a middle class secretary getting fined over a million dollars because she put some music in a directory that had “share on the web” turned on, unknown to her. Infamously, one outfit in the last election cycle aggressively threatened anyone who used as much as a sentence fragment from a news story from the right wing news papers who hired them. Never mind that such use falls well within the confines of “fair use” – the outfit would make dire warnings of criminal and civil prosecution, and then settle with their victim for several thousand dollars. Few people are going to fight that because if they do, even if they win in the end, the costs will have taken their home and a good chunk of their lives. Easier to settle for a lousy five thousand. In corporate America, such extortion is regarded as “diligent copyright protection.”
Somebody finally DID fight the outfit, and the court ruled that the outfit was abusing its role of copyright guardian. Normally that might be unsurprising, but in corporate America, you can’t be too sure how a court will rule these days.
If Congress passes those two laws, you can pretty much expect a rebellion around the world, and a lot of the Internet will simply start routing around America. They would do so for much the same reason that you wouldn’t want your cable feed passing through control of the old Soviet Union, giving them control of what you could see or not see.
And it wouldn’t stop with copyright violations. Just this past week, the Discovery Channel confirmed that it would, in fact, be running all seven episodes of David Attenborough’s “Frozen Planet” The acclaimed series, which has already aired on the BBC, deals with the polar regions. Rumors had swept the web that Discovery Channel wasn’t going to air the seventh episode (the series will begin in late March with them) because it focuses on the effects of global warming on the polar regions.
Now, I have no idea if Discovery was actually planning to censor it or not. But the rumor had legs and spread quickly, simply because Discovery is American, and these days, America has a reputation as a corporate lackey that is perfectly happy to throttle and control communications on behalf of corporate profits.
Given that incident, in light of an absence of any actual malevolent intent by Discovery, it’s safe to say that the world is probably already working to route around corporate-hagridden America in order to preserve people’s rights and freedoms
America needs to take a good hard look at the copyright laws it has, and which it has worked so hard to inflict upon the rest of the world. Presently, copyright on a book or movie or song can be up to 105 years, which is absurd on the face of it. This is particularly true in today’s fad-driven culture, where a commercial work will have received 95% of its income in the first six months. And the laws that supposedly protect copyright are becoming more and more draconian. One song, such as Gooch’s, can cost you five years of your life and $125,000 in fines. Gooch, of course, is totally imaginary, because using a real example would be a bit like licking a wolverine. Not recommended. The people who are trying to protect my freedom of speech might destroy my life if I were to claim I actually violated copyright.
The original terms of copyright in the United States were based on the United Kingdom’s Statute of Anne, which stipulated copyright for 14 years, with an option for a second 14 years if the creator of the work was still alive at that point, and wanted to extend it. A couple of the states didn’t even have the right of renewal.
There aren’t many things that have a great deal of commercial value after 14 years. The most popular music album of 1997 was something called “Barbie Girl” by Aqua. I don’t guess it sold a lot of copies last week. Among movies, the most popular was “Titanic,” which at least I’ve heard of, and even seen. It’s one that might qualify for a 14 year extension, because Cameron is still alive and could probably use the money. Software? Don’t make me laugh. When did anyone even bother to STEAL a copy of Windows ME lately? Or Dreamweaver 8?
There should be mechanisms for longer term patents on items such as drugs, which will keep selling and cost a lot to develop. But then, pirated drugs aren’t that big a problem. Pirate Bay does not carry Vioxx.
Reducing copyright to the original 14 years makes sense for most creative works, but obviously most pirating involves items that are popular here and now.
Reduce the penalties. If someone is caught pirating a movie, they should be fined $50, not $125,000, and no jail time. If they want to fight the issue in court, they are responsible for court costs if they lose, which would deter the guilty from putting up much of a fight. But the companies that seek out pirates could keep half the fines, but would be required to explain in their form letters what the penalties really are, and what the consequences of not paying might be. (Refusing to respond would be a federal crime, punishable by six months in prison). People merchandising stolen works would still be treated as felons, because that’s exactly what they are.
Keep Congress and the corporations from controlling the internet. It’s too much power, too easily abused, and they cannot be trusted with it. The internet belongs to the world, and not to America or the corporations for which it stands.
Corporations can get around the problem of lost revenues in quite a few ways, and generally do. Despite the sour economy, the entertainment companies supposedly hit the hardest by piracy are doing quite well. Surveys suggest that few people who steal songs were going to buy the songs otherwise, and in a lot of cases, outlets such as torrents are a good way to promote work—a lot of budding artists are out there, hoping to be noticed.
Draconian copyright laws defeat their own purpose, and greatly diminish freedom. They can be moderated to sensible levels, and not impede anyone gaining from the fruits of their creativity.
It’s time for a massive overhaul of copyright law in America. While America is still relevant to the discussion.