The Public Domain: Bluegrass’s Cash Cow
You’re a copyright owner, you’ve got some music. You make a little money (not too much). As a rightsholder, what’s your perspective on copyright in the US? Sure, you have a limited (supposedly) monopoly to exploit your content, that’s great. It helps you make a living and pushes you to keep creating.
However, let’s say you’re dead. Presumably, you aren’t writing music (2pac is notable exception). Is it a bad thing when your work falls into the public domain? Who stands to gain more, you or society at large? What do you stand to lose?
This has been a sticky section of copyright for years. Every time important works (read: Disney) are about to fall into the Public Domain, a change in the copyright law to extend the duration of one’s monopoly materializes, seemingly from thin air. Outside of the anti-trust-inspired motivation to be able to exploit profitable IP for all eternity (don’t get me started on works-for-hire), when should works fall into the Public Domain (PD)?
I was reading a great article over at Techdirt entitled,“Debunking The Claim That Bad Things Happen When Works Fall Into The Public Domain” and snarkiness aside, it aims to show how the PD isn’t an intrinsically bad thing.
According to the article, “here in the US, we’ve had absolutely nothing going into the public domain for years, due to retroactive extension of copyright terms. One of the key complaints about such retroactive extension of copyrights is that it was done entirely without evidence that it was needed. Instead, we got purely faith-based arguments on the importance of keeping works out of the public domain. Those arguments tended to fall into three camps: (1) that public domain works get ignored, since a lack of monopoly means no one will do anything with them. (2) Totally contradicting the first claim, that public domain works would become overused in typical “tragedy of the commons” fashion, because there were no limits, and (3) that since the works can be used in a manner not approved by a copyright holder, it will lead to “inappropriate or distasteful” use (i.e., Mickey Mouse porn).”
Framing this debate around Bluegrass makes an intuitive counterargument stupidly commonsensical:
1) Under-use argument: We LOVE old time music. Often times, the older the better. All we need is easy access to what’s in the PD and that gets easier with time and digital technology. Trust me, if the vibrant old-time music scene is any indication then we’ll use PD music alright.
2) Overuse (market saturation) argument: Bring it on. Why do you think we love an play the standards. I’ve heard “Sally Goodin” played about 3 billion times and it still makes my hair stand on end when I hear someone do perform it. But seriously, when is having more things to draw on ever a bad idea?
3) Debasement/Defamation argument: This is perhaps the MOST ridiculous. Not only is it spectacular when someone reworks a classics (they wouldn’t become standards in the first place if no one did anything interesting with them), but it’s culturally necessary to do so. For a genre to evolve and stay relevant, we add to what’s came before us, add to it and make it our own. This cycle continues for generations and this is the lifeblood to any lasting music idiom.
If intuition doesn’t suit you, check out Paul Heald’s series of papers where he attempted to prove or disprove the argument against the public domain by comparing the fate of works in the public domain to those still under copyright.
According to the Masnick [Techdirt], “the idea that bad things happen when works fall into the public domain is not supported by the data at all” Thank goodness.
– The Public Domain by James Boyle
– “US Is Left Waiting For Godot On Public Domain Day: Once Again, Absolutely Nothing Enters The Public Domain This Year” (Techdirt, 1/2/11)