The Obscurer

Double Speak

And while I’m still sat at my PC, here are some quick reflections on a couple of events that occurred yesterday in the ongoing furore over MPs and their expenses.
First, in the House of Commons, Speaker Martin made a statement. Now, my overriding impression of Michael Martin since he ascended to the job is that he has been as best ineffectual. More recently – over the issue of MP’s expenses and earlier regarding his involvement, or lack of it, in the arrest of Conservative MP Damien Green – he hasn’t even seemed that good. I’d have had no problem with him facing a vote of no confidence, and I won’t mourn his passing. His performance in the Commons yesterday was a perfect example of his general uselessness: his stumbling over matters of fact; his continual calls for “or-or-order” regardless of whether or not there was any sound of disorder in the chamber, like it has become some nervous tick or verbal crutch. However, listening to matters unfold on the radio, I was as much struck by the behaviour of the other MPs in the house as they called on him to resign. Recent revelations have shown widespread abuses of the expenses system, and yet instead of looking themselves in the mirror, holding up their hands and showing contrition, the impression given was of the MPs angrily projecting all the blame for their woes onto the Speaker for failing to prevent them all from taking the piss, a hostility directed towards the man who had failed to save them from themselves. Whatever Michael Martin’s many faults it all had a scapegoating tone to me, the feel of diversionary tactics. There was a surfeit of a holier-than-thou attitude around, despite the fact that even if those individual MPs calling for the Speaker’s head could claim that they personally have not been tainted by the fall-out from the Telegraph’s leaks, they sure has hell know someone who has been. I don’t want to tar all MPs with the same brush, but it is difficult not to be cynical; and the baiting of Michael Martin, while it was no doubt meant to show how MPs are trying to get their own house in order, instead sounded to me as if they were placing all the blame for their many collective failings at one man’s feet. They wanted to give the impression of taking action, but to me is just appeared as if they were shirking their own responsibilities and denying their own culpability. It suggests to me that the MPs concerned still haven’t learned any lessons from this whole exercise, and it added to, rather than subtracted from, my cynicism regarding our current wave of parliamentarians.

Meanwhile, David Cameron was showing a similar lack of self-awareness and a talent for missing the point when he made a speech calling for a General Election. Again. He’s been doing this for so long now on the grounds of all sorts of ostensible reasons that I’m amazed it even makes the news, although his plea for people to sign petitions demanding an election does signal a new development. To me though it shows a disdain for the parliamentary process to so constantly call for a fresh election not because some constitutional procedure has been triggered but simply because he wants the PM’s job for himself and is doing well in the polls. (That said, this “calling for a General Election every day” baton is something I may well pick up and run with the minute Cameron drops it outside the front door of Number 10.) This time around I guess he can argue that what we are dealing with here is a serious loss of faith in our parliament itself, and so is something that parliament alone is perhaps unable to resolve. But honestly; while in theory the idea of imminently letting voters have their say on individual MPs’ integrity is sound, in practice what sort of fair election would we have when all sorts of unproven allegations ranging from sloppiness to fraud are flying around unresolved? Many of the allegations raised by the Telegraph point to an apparent contempt on the part of MPs for the public who elect them. How contemptful then is David Cameron, as he talks of a General Election being needed to restore trust in politics; as if we haven’t twigged, as if we’re too daft to notice that this is a transparent, politically opportunistic call which is surely more about restoring the Conservative party to government? I don’t feel that merely electing some wannabe MPs and re-electing some sitting MPs with David Cameron at their head will make a jot of difference; and Cameron’s disingenuous, self-serving speech was evidence enough to suggest to me that when he does become Prime Minister we are all but certain to end up with more of the same.

Copy Right

Hey; it’s been a while since I used a really lame pun as a title around here ( “The ‘More’ Gauge” being merely lame). Hey; it’s been a while since I’ve used anything as a title around here that didn’t include either “twitter” or “on a plate” somewhere within it. But let’s put those titles on the back burner for a little while, because an interesting debate has been taking place over at The Economist on the matter of copyright. I say “interesting”; I haven’t really been following it myself, but its existence did make me think about how the issue has affected me recently.

If you look at the footer of this page you will see a little © symbol, but that doesn’t really mean anything; it was included by default in the veryplaintxt theme I’ve used ever since I moved to WordPress from Blogger, and I haven’t been bothered to do anything about it. It’s pointless, for a start, isn’t it? As far as I’m aware, the fact that I’ve written something automatically means it is covered by UK copyright law. Even were it not, I’m hardly vexed about people nicking anything from this place. I’d probably instigate some sort of Creative Commons License thingy here, if I felt I knew what that palaver is all about. I guess I’ve no strong feeling one way or another regarding copyright law, other than a vague belief that people should have control over their creative output.

But some elements of copyright law do seem a bit weird. How can football fixtures be covered for example? They’re hardly propagating ideas or works of imagination, just lists of dates, statements of fact. You would think that rather than invoking copyright law and so enabling these facts to be jealously guarded and restricted, the football authorities would want such information copied for free and distributed far and wide, the further the better, so as many people as possible are made aware of who is playing who, where and when, in the hope that the optimum number of people will then stump up hard cash to go and see the games. For football fixtures to be covered by copyright law seem inappropriate, indeed downright bizarre.

My own brush with copyright, as a kind-of victim, is less odd, far more justifiable. I suppose it is something that is becoming more commonplace everyday. The wonders of digital technology have enabled me and others to turn video clips into short films; to edit them, amend them and then publish them on the web. Even a simple computer program such as Windows Movie Maker means you are able to add any soundtrack to your visuals, and I’ve often done just that, picking a suitable piece of music to complement the pictures on screen. I’ve then uploaded the whole lot to YouTube for my friends and family to view. You may well have done the same yourself.

One of my favourite choices of soundtrack has been the music of Led Zeppelin. I used part of one of their tunes to accompany a short section of my video of our trip to York a few years ago, for example, and I have used other tracks on several other videos. Unfortunately, this fact has come to the attention of the record company who own the rights to this music, with the result that the soundtrack to those videos has now been removed from YouTube; not just the offending music itself but the whole audio track, effectively rendering the videos defunct.

Now I can’t really complain here: I didn’t write those songs (although I reckon neither did whoever stripped the music from my videos) and I have no right to use them on my amateur films and publish them on the internet. Were I asked to pay to use these songs I just wouldn’t bother. Simple. I don’t have a leg to stand on. My only thought is, what’s the point? While WMG (for it is they) may have the right to deny me the use of their music, why bother enforcing it in such an instance? All their action really means is that a harmless video of my family and me trolling around York, for example, is now pretty much unwatchable. That video in particular has been seen by over 1500 people so far on YouTube, several of whom have left kind comments; eight people have liked it enough to favourite it, and now they can’t watch it again. Great. Now, while I’m sure that those eight people are coping just fine, what else, I wonder, has actually been achieved by disabling the sound on my film? What practical advantage has been gained by such an exercising of copyright law, because I can’t think of anything? Sure, I have no rights over the songs used and WMG have the right to do as they please, but just because they are able to ruin a pleasant enough little video doesn’t mean that to do so is anything other than a bit silly. It’s not as if I’m claiming that I wrote those songs myself and am trying to pass them off as my own work, and I seriously doubt anyone watched my York video merely to listen to the few snatches of “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” – which I used as the soundtrack to some images of York Minster and The Shambles – to avoid buying the song on CD or by download and with the intention of depriving Jimmy Page et al of some precious royalties. WMG’s action, while legitimate, certainly seems a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Surely there’s a better way to assert you rights?

Well yes, there is. Because on this video which I took at the Northampton Balloon Festival a few years back I used “All I Want Is You” by U2 as my soundtrack. Again, as with my use of Led Zeppelin’s tracks, this came to the attention of the music publishers, and again they took action. However, in this case, when I was first alerted to this fact, the music publishers stated that they were happy for the video to remain intact, but on the proviso that I allowed adverts to be placed alongside the video. No problem, I thought. I mean, how could I reasonably object? And then, checking the video again recently I noticed they had gone a step further. Now, when the video is played on YouTube, a little advert pops up informing the viewer of the name of the song which is being played, alongside a clickable button which allows you to download it from iTunes. How much more sensible and imaginative than WMG’s response? Rather than just pull the music and the rest of the audio to no effect other than to potentially piss off some viewers, instead turn copyright law to your advantage and allow it to be used to promote and advertise your product. Which you kind of think is the whole point.

What it all boils down to I suppose is that I don’t really object to copyright law, just to its thoughtless application. I don’t even have any objection to Led Zeppelin – or their emissaries – stripping their music from my videos if that is what they want to do. After all, the music belongs to them, and they can do as they like. It just seems like a very short-sighted use of the law, but not one that has affected me significantly. After all, those videos, illegal soundtrack and all, are still on my hard drive, and can be easily distributed in other ways if I so wish. I could upload another copy to YouTube if I were so minded, and could keep doing so as and when its existence is discovered by the music publishers. And it still exists intact, for now, on another video sharing site that I have taken to using in preference to You Tube. Ultimately I don’t feel as if I’m a victim of copyright law here; rather Led Zeppelin are, for applying copyright clumsily and so missing out on the potential benefits that U2 have gained through their more enlightened use of their rights. In the case of Led Zeppelin and WMG it seems to me that copyright law, instead of protecting intellectual capital, has merely facilitated their shooting themselves in the foot.