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.