Saturday, April 20, 2013

Students for Free Culture Conference

I spent the day at a Students for Free Culture (soon to be Free Culture Foundation) conference.  Instead of writing about all the things that happened during the first day of the conference, it's more interesting to give a composer's-eye view of a few of the points.

For one thing, musicians and other artistic creators did not seem to be in evidence.  This was particularly glaring during a panel discussion regarding copyright reform.  For instance, Patricia Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media and professor at American University in Washington, D.C., spoke about the progress certain communities, such as documentary filmmakers and poets, have had in defining for themselves standards of fair use, which they have then been able to get the Copyright Tribunal to agree to recognize.  She referred to the Jacob's Pillow Dance Interactive web site, a comprehensive online collection of dance videos which would not have been possible without defined standards of fair use, and to a number of documentaries which had been stuck in never-never land until the documentary film-making community adopted a code of best practices for fair use.

Well and good.  This is not the same, however, as having a dancer, poet, photographer, or musician discuss the knotty questions of copyright as they pertain to creative work.  For instance, I often send PDFs of my music to performers I hope will play it, or at least look it over and send me some kind words.  If one of those performers passes it on to someone else who plays it (or who passes it on to someone else ...), I probably won't complain, because right now the performance is more important than whatever cash they might have paid me.  If someone uploads a video of that performance to YouTube, I probably won't complain if the performance is good.  If the performance isn't good, I might send a polite note to the poster asking that the video be removed, because I don't want to be represented by something that's not well-played!

A more established artist, however, might view the situation differently.  Someone who already has a number of fine YouTube videos, doesn't necessarily need another one.  Someone whose work is already being played regularly by top musicians around the world, and who is being paid for those performances, doesn't care so much if their work reaches one more player.  They have their audience; to them the compensation is more important.  Someone in that position could be excused for getting upset by the suggestion, or worse, the assumption, that no one should ever have to pay them to use their work.

There's also the case of the composer whose music is used, without permission or compensation, in a major motion picture, which goes on to make millions.  Certainly, exposure is worth something, but it does not pay for groceries or rent.  This actually did happen to one composer; eventually the studio did pay him something as a courtesy, but it's clear that someone else in that situation might not be so fortunate if the law didn't provide some remedy.

None of this was said during the panel.  While some of the issues were addressed during other talks, the absence of any creative artist stuck out as a major omission.   There are creators (e.g. Cory Doctorow) who have succeeded in releasing some of their work free for certain purposes and getting paid, and it would have been wonderful to hear one or more of them talk about what works for them.  It didn't happen here.

The afternoon keynote, by James Vasile, was more useful in that regard.  He gave a broad history of the impact of the development of cheap, accessible copying technology on several areas of endeavor, starting with computer games and going on to such things as movies, music, books, and web comics.  In each area, he outlined the initial responses of the industry in question (DRM, regulation, and so on), the failure of those measures, and the ways the industries have adapted to the situation.

Vasile went on to say that currently artists who are also entrepreneurs can make a decent living; the problem is for artists who are not entrepreneurs to make any living, and the current need is for services to take care of those tasks for them, in a way that allows them to continue their work.  These are good things to hear; they would have been even more powerful if there had been someone at the conference for whom they worked, who could have spoken first-hand, instead of second or third-hand.  My observation has been that the currently-available services often have predatory pricing attached; the people running the service will make money on every unit sold, but the prices offered are high enough to be unattractive even if the artist makes nothing.

None of this means that I'm against free or open culture as a concept, and in fact I've contributed to certain forms.  The issue is that a major discussion of issues affecting artistic creation and production is happening in the absence of artists and students of the arts.  Something's wrong with that.

This post edited on 4/21/2013 to add links and extend proper credit for some of the remarks.