ASCAP Declares War on Free Culture

The free culture movement is abuzz today over news that ASCAP has requested their members to fight organizations like Creative Commons, Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation over what it claims as an effort to undermine copyright.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), according to ASCAP member Mike Rugnetta, has sent a letter out asking its members to send donations that would go to fighting organizations like Creative Commons, the EFF, Public Knowledge and other supporters of the free culture movement. He posted the letter to prove it (Part 1, part 2).

“At this moment,” the letter says, “we are facing our biggest challenge ever. Many forces including Creative Commons, Public Knowledge, Electronic Frontier Foundation and technology companies with deep pockets are mobilizing to promote “Copyleft” in order to undermine our “Copyright.” They say they are advocates of consumer rights, but the truth in these groups simply do not want to pay for the use of our music. Their mission is to spread the word that our music should be free.”

The letter continues, “This is why your help now is vital. We fear that our opponents are influencing Congress against the interests of music creators. If their views are allowed to gain strength, music creators will find it harder and harder to make a living as traditional media shifts to online and wireless services. We all know what will happen next: the music will dry up, and the ultimate loser will be the music consumer.”

ASCAP urged its members to donate, on average, $5 to the Legislative Fund for the Arts (ALFA).

As an artist who uses Creative Commons, I can clear a few things up. Creative Commons is a license that artists can voluntarily adopt to help market their music. They can choose to adopt that license, put their music in the public domain or simply copyright their music. Creative Commons is a middle-of-the-road approach when it comes to copyright and enables creators to tell consumers, in plain language, what they can and cannot do with their content. In short, it’s an option for artists. Any attack on Creative Commons is an attack on an artists right to choose what they feel is appropriate for their chosen distribution channel.

Additionally, Creative Commons is not an attack on creators who copyright their work. It is a response to what some feel is the failings of copyright. It is not a movement to pirate copyrighted material. If a Creative Commons work infringed on copyright, the license would be invalid and unenforceable. If an artist chooses to use Creative Commons, then it is their work that is placed under Creative Commons, not someone else’s.

Many feel that copyright, in its current form, is outdated and does not do a good job at responding to the digital environment and is more appropriate for a time when one couldn’t send music via an electronic form. Many feel that a free music distribution model is a form of marketing – just ask 50 cent about that.

This is how Creative Commons works from the perspective of an artist such as myself (for the purposes of this article, I’ll pretend that it’s about 2005 when I first started because that’s where many artists start using Creative Commons):

I have started producing music, but I’m just starting out. I don’t know whether its actually good music or bad music. I also don’t have a good network to market my music locally. I also happen to know that the internet is basically access to a world-wide distribution network. I also happen to know that file-sharing is a great way to distribute music because of its efficiency.

At this point in time, I’m, by default, desperate for an audience because no one has really heard of me before, so it’s in my best interest to get as many people as possible to have heard my music. I also don’t want people to think they are criminals for downloading my music in particular, so I want to give them permission to redistribute my music – something that’s more formal than a little scribble saying, “please spread this music”.

The good news is, all the legalese has already been written out. On top of that, there’s a sort of human readable version that goes along with it. So, I go to that resource called Creative Commons and get a license. The license asks me a series of questions like do I want to allow others to remix the works or do I expressly forbid any derivative works? Do I allow commercial use of my work or should I be contacted first to get permission for commercial use of my work? After a few simple questions like that, I get a block of code that I can attach to a website (or I can simply include a link inside a music archive, whatever the case may be)

The license can is attached to whatever form of distribution I choose whether it be a .zip/.rar/.tar/etc. file on p2p or via some server space. Then, others can take a look at that license and be told, “Hey, this is my music and you can use it in a number of ways so long as conditions x, y and z is met.”

Creative Commons is a very popular way to distribute music for free, but does that mean it’s all about free music? No. If I wanted to, I could put a simple license image (like a physical picture on the physical medium) on a CD of my work and sell it using this license. If I wanted to, I could make sure my work is copyrighted on that CD instead (because, as the creator, I have the power to revoke a license at any time) It’s all about the creators choice.

What would happen is an organization like ASCAP were to somehow make Creative Commons illegal? Well, that would mean an artists choice would go from, “copyright (all rights reserved), creative commons (some rights reserved) or public domain (no rights reserved)” to “Copyright (all rights reserved) or public domain (no rights reserved)”. An attempt to shut down Creative Commons is an attempt at censorship being placed on creators.

Since this is in the US, if this escalates from a call to war from ASCAP, things could get very interesting. Americans may have their faults, but I know they are very supportive of free speech generally speaking. Whether or not this really escalates beyond a very poorly thought out letter is hard to say at this point.

Hat tip: BoingBoing.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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