Common Grounds: Coffee Houses & Copyright Review

coffee sepiaI am presently ensconced in what I expect will become my new morning writing venue — a local coffee house/bakery located just a few miles from my alma mater, Bard College.  Like other establishments of its kind, especially those in proximity to very liberal, liberal-arts colleges, this place is steeped in the atmosphere of social consciousness. All the coffee is fair-trade, as is the chocolate used in the baked goods and confectionaries made on site. Posters adorn the walls advertising the fair-trade collective supported, depicting photos of Latin American and African workers enjoying the fruits of their labor rather than suffering the deprivations of many who harvest or produce the goods we consume.

It’s August now, but the Bard students will be here soon, gathering in ebullient clumps to study and socialize; and regardless of their majors or career goals, anecdotal evidence suggests that their sense of social justice will be an even more prominent component of their life plans than those of my friends and mine when we were here as students.  In the 1980s, we were mostly hoping Ronald Reagan wouldn’t start WWIII with nuclear weapons, but today’s digitally connected generation appears anyway to be more instinctively aware of their role as global citizens — that choices made in pampered, western life can directly affect the well being or suffering of individuals halfway around the world.  Of course, even this kind of consciousness only goes so far as it is nearly impossible to live in the developed world without inadvertently benefitting from exploitation in the developing world (see your iPhone), but at least the trend toward thinking globally and acting locally is common in the next generation, and I think it’s fair to credit social media as a catalyst in this case.

My new morning haunt is also a venue for local musicians to perform; and near the entrance is a sign reading, “Play what the people like.  We own every license there is!”  Below this, the BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC logos are displayed.  The sign isn’t very prominent, many people won’t even notice it no matter how many times they walk through the door; but it would not be out of place if it were hung next to the posters of thriving coffee, tea, and cocoa harvesters.  license signI’m sure the owner of this shop was simply following the law when he bought the music licenses, but whether he knows it or not, the sign about the music is entirely consistent with the non-exploitative ethos of the business. Despite the raw tonnage of gibberish that has been promulgated on the subject of media piracy as a “new model,” there is not one idea yet proposed that is anything more than a hypocritical contradiction of the same social consciousness that wants to promote and acquire fair-trade goods. So, with regard to media consumption, the next generation has to decide whether or not they can agree that exploitation is universally wrong while recognizing that some of the “innovation” that has been brought to you by Web 2.0 is merely the acceleration and expansion of junk business.  Check your SPAM filters.

On August 1, the House Judiciary Committee held its third round of hearings in the process leading up to comprehensive review of copyright law, and the witnesses invited to testify were supposed to offer various points of view on digital-age innovation and, in theory, make a case for why the present copyright system stifles said innovation.  The witnesses were as follows:

Ms. Danae Ringleman
Founder and Chief Customer Officer
Indigogo, Inc.

Mr. Jm Fruchterman
President and CEO
Benetech, Inc.

Mr. Nathan Seidle
CEO
SparkFun Electronics, Inc.

Mr. Rakesh Agrawal
Founder and CEO
SnapStream Media

Mr. Van Lindberg
Vice President of Intellectual Property
Rackspace Hosting, Inc.

Each witness represented burgeoning, intriguing, and humanistic business ventures, but not one witness presented a single, declarative statement as to what specific mechanism(s) in the current copyright system act as barriers to innovation.  Absent such testimony, and in light of the fact that all of these individuals can boast thriving  and legal businesses, one might only conclude that copyright in general must not be the proverbial monkey wrench holding back the future that people keeping saying it is.  This might explain why several of the witnesses, when pressed with direct questions from the committee, were quick to change the subject from copyright to patent law.  In fact, by my estimate, roughly half the hearing was devoted to discussion of the patent system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the committee members had to double-check the name at the top of their briefing documents to make sure they were in the right room. We’re used to seeing this in public debate — certain technology interests assailing the principle of intellectual property in general, toggling between copyrights and patents at will — but I was surprised to see it happen in a Congressional hearing and do hope copyright review will become more focused on specifics going forward.

On the other hand, we could streamline the process, if we take a lesson from my new, local coffee house.  If the next generation of socially conscious citizens in the developed world simply consumes media the way they consume coffee, tea, and chocolate, we might save ourselves hours of misdirected testimony that is sure to come.  If people choose to marginalize media piracy to an exception, we will reduce the vague and vacillating assault on IP as a general concept and open the floor to frank analysis of what does and does not work in these legal systems.  Sadly, though, reports like this one by Helienne Lindvall indicating music piracy is most prevalent among the wealthy reveal that privilege too often begets a sense of entitlement that selectively overrides social consciousness. Among the hundreds of Bard students who will soon be tromping through here, most of whom will be art majors, I do wonder how many of their smart phones will be filled with music or filmed entertainment downloaded from torrent sites. Correct this one hypocrisy, and the debate becomes so much simpler.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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57 comments

  • Where is BMI, SESAC, and ASCAP for for anything besides music performance rights? Imagine if it was impossible for a restaurant to buy such blanket rights? Negotiate with every band in existence instead? Pfft. Either they would be a whole lot of silence in coffee shops nationwide, or they’d be a lot of people putting a blind eye to unlicensed music playing in restaurants.

    Music performance rights is a rare exception where statutory and blanket licensing has a long and productive history, making such things as live music in coffeeshops possible in the first place.

    That’s not the case for most other content. There is no ASCAP for movies. There are no license to produce a service that competes with iTunes, Netflix or Spotify. There is no blanket licenses available to build the kind of technology/content market people want and expect.

    So piracy fills in the gaps.

    • How is that filling in the gaps at all?

    • No. There is no “gap in demand.” There is only opportunism.

    • Where is my blanket license for coder’s code? i want custom stuff from all coders and i want to use it as i wish for whatever i want, and i only want to pay them one tenth of a penny for every 1000 lines of code.
      Doesn’t matter what company they work for, or what they do, i want access to it all, and i’m willing to pay meager rates to do so.

      • The difference is there is a working market for software (we aren’t struggling like musicians apparently are), so there is no need for statutory licensing.

        As I mentioned below, international copyright treaties recommend statutory licensing in situations where a working market has failed to establish itself. It’s a judgement call that politicians will have to make, if this applies to music or movies or whatever.

      • There was a ‘working market’ before the tech community was hell bent to destroy it.
        There is demand… demand has never been as great.

        hmm. your suggestion is akin to an arsonist burning down a building, and complaining it’s hard to get into the front door…

  • I’d also like to mention in all the major international copyright agreements from the Berne Convention onwards, statutory licensing is mentioned as the primary option in situations when copyright ceases to function correctly (ie. fails to create a legitimate market). It seems that even before the Internet they realized that copyright can turn impractical.

    Well I think it’s clear that copyright has ceased to function correctly. Per the international treaties Berne and TRIP, it’s time to look at statutory licensing.

    • Anti-copyright wonks make a big deal about 1st amendment rights and free speech. My free speech as a creator is exercised by saying that certain organisations are NOT to exploit my creations in particular ways. So I use robots.txt to deny googlebot-images from indexing the 1000s of images on my site, and I don’t license entomology images to Monsanto. Statutory licenses take away my expression of free speech.

      • There is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom to control who hears your speech.

      • Really? You cannot make Neil Young sing for coca-cola, nor Jackson Brown for the McCain Campaign, nor me provide photos for pesticide companies.

        Silence is a powerful form of speech. You would legislate to remove that form of speech.

      • Yes, in fact I would. I don’t think have a inherent right for their own speech to not be used against them or to promote things they don’t like. As I said, freedom of speech is the ability to say (or publish) what you want without government interference. It doesn’t afford you the right to control other people’s speech, if it be from McCain or Coca-Cola. Also, you are free to remain silent if you desire.

      • Also I feel that the the ability to damage the integrity of a work is a big part of what fair use is about. Fair use specifically calls out uses of a work that are damaging as fair. You do not need permission to criticize or parody or otherwise harm the integrity of the work or the author behind it. Why? precisely because it is not in the author’s interest, and the chances of getting actual permission would be close to zero.

        Lawmakers, quite long ago actually, felt that allowing the form of speech protected by fair use is far more important then an author’s “moral rights” or integrity over a work.

        More evidence that copyright, at least in countries like the US, is more of an economic thing then anything. In fact, I would argue that copyright itself has a damaging effect on free speech – for instance, the legal impossibility of an author writing a story in the universe of 1984 or a Disney movie or whatever copyrighted universe limits the possibility of the author to express their speech in a manner they desire. You saw this happen in this very blog, where David couldn’t use the song he initially wanted (sure, it worked out for him – but does it always?). This represents an actual real limit on free speech.

      • Well, i’m glad you’re not making the rules, because your stance (that one’s speech can be appropriated for any means, including commercial endorsement of something one doesn’t support) would not be supported by anyone else.

      • monkey,

        The kind of licensing is already around. Isn’t that the whole point of this post is how great it is that the Coffeeshop got a blanket license that lets them play “whatever they want”? Or maybe it’s not so great?

      • Fair use is not a right, it is an affirmative defense, and it has its limits.

        Using someone’s words to promote something they do not support is libelous.

      • Recommend Terry Hart’s latest post about fair use at Copyhype.

      • “Yes, in fact I would. I don’t think have a inherent right for their own speech to not be used against them or to promote things they don’t like.”

        I’m glad to see that feudalism is alive and well in Freetardia.

        In any case statutory licences for songs is an anomaly that only applies in the case of songwriters. It doesn’t occur with the sound record nor the performance. The result being that Pepsi and McCain could have covers of songs made should that wish.

        The statutory licenses also result in payments of pittances to the songwriters, which are the base of all the music. Don’t have songwriters you don’t have songs period.

    • As Jaron Lanier pointed out, the reason most people don’t break into cars is not just that it’s illegal and difficult, but that they prefer not to live in a world where cars are stolen. Thanks to a lot of ridiculous rhetoric about how “you’re only stealing from millionaires” and “artists make their money on touring and t shirts,” people think it’s okay to do that. But now that more people are taking Web 2.0 at its word and making their own stuff, that’s changing.

      In fact the number of people I’ve heard say “I used to pirate until I got a real job” is growing.

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  • How would that possibly work for book publishers?

    • I assume you are talking about me? I could care less about publishers – the purpose of copyright is to protect authors from publishers, not the other way around. The government can pay a salary to an author based on the surveyed popularity of his work, and cut out the middle man entirely.

      • I want to mention this isn’t much different to how SoundExchange works. They pay money a fixed percentage royalty to the artists (including session musicians) regardless if the artist is the copyright holder or not or what agreement the artist had with the publisher (record label). Obviously publishers don’t like this arrangement, but tough shit really.

      • A solution that is untenable, unrealistic (nobody would want their taxes going to that, even the most ardent socialist) and with great potential for censorship.

        As for “freedom to control who hears your speech,” if I write a song and do not want it used to sell sneakers, I should have every right to object.

      • As for “protecting authors from publishers,” the bias towards publishers is ridiculous. The fact is that some of our greatest works did not spring from the heads of their authors like Zeus, but were often direted by capable editors and publishers. Plus, more people would be out of work for no reason other than the notion that “information wants to be free.”

      • I don’t believe publishers are strictly needed any more. The Internet has made it easy enough to self-publish. Thus there is little reason to keep traditional publishers around in the future.

        Monkey I hope you don’t live in socialist America. Because every year, hundreds of millions of dollars of tax money is already used to fund art projects. Oh and hundreds of billions of tax dollars are used to fund science projects. I think maybe Somalia is maybe one of the few countries where this isn’t true, but I’m not even so sure about that.

      • Actually, M, I consider myself a socialist. However, the arts are simply not analogous to sciences, no matter how much you insist they are. No one outside of North Korea would want the government have control over people’s expression.

      • I don’t see how there is control over people’s expression. You can say whatever you want and not get sued or disappeared, statutory licensing or not.

        In fact, the copyright right system is at its core a control over people’s expression. So getting rid of it will actually enhance free speech, and for the first time in years allow people to express themselves on top of our shared culture.

      • By the way. Don’t take to mean that copyright law is any good at stopping people at building on top of our shared culture. Look at YouTube (or any video site really), so many mashups and remixes and not a single sync license in sight! That’s all technically copyright infringement, and even viewing the videos may not be entirely legal (this isn’t clear yet).

        Sync licensing is totally not enforced anymore outside of major TV productions and studios. But it can be. One thing I’d really like to see is record companies / publishers actually starting to enforce sync licensing. Not because I like the idea of sync licensing, but I just want to see the incredible backlash that would probably cause.

      • Then how would your proposed government compensation work?

        Are you seriously suggesting that taxpayers will support a new, gigantic bureaucracy to compensate artists, including ones who publish material the majority find offensive?

        It’s an awfully long way to go to get around simply paying people upfront what they deserve for their work.

      • monkey,

        It’s an awfully long way to go to get around simply paying people upfront what they deserve for their work.

        Too bad you are wrong. If it was simple, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Billion dollar industries have tried and tried and failed. Because it’s not simple.

        I love this aspect of copyright debates, the dichotomy between “copyright is a great system” and “copyright is not working”, often in the same stream of thought or argument.

        After years of searching I never seen a valid, workable way to enforce copyright in the information age. If I did, I would become a copyright proponent overnight.

      • Actually, it’s very simple: pay people for their work. The moral and ethical gymnastics required to justify taking people’s work without paying are not really worth the effort.

        True, it’s difficult to *enforce* this, but it’s actually a fairly simple, cut-and-dried matter: just pay for stuff you want.

      • Most of the content on YouTube is not mashups, its mainstream TV snippets, music videos, and label songs that some one has at best added their holiday/wedding snaps to, or more likely than not “half inched” from flickr. The rest is mainly people falling over, funny animals and kids. Culture at its best.

        We’ve had a decade of this shite. Each week we are promised the great self published novel, or film, or whatever. A competition to find a freetard “Happy Birthday” replacement:
        http://www.geekosystem.com/new-copyright-free-birthday-songs/

        and every day we have wikipedians fighting to keep blurry penis photos and masturbation gifs.

        The last 10 years of Frei Kulture has been an unmitigated non event.

      • monkey,

        Okay, so has the copyright-as-an-honor system worked so far?

        John,

        Oh come on. Wikipedia has plenty of high quality, reasonably contrasted pictures of penises. I think perhaps, the blurriness you are witnessing is a problem with your monitor or something.

      • I didn’t say that they didn’t have any, but that they fought to keep everyone. ‘Cos we know that on wikipedia every dick is special.

  • Now that BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC all have funds that compensate writers for live performances, there is even less excuse for venues to avoid paying for these licenses.
    Dick Weissman

  • You wrote “non-exploitative,” and I think it applies, if seen from the owner’s perspective, but not from the performer’s. I believe I know the place you mean and I have played there. It was a good gig. The audience is small, but attentive and they do buy CDs. With the cost of transportation, it was a wash and I took home a few bucks. The house — if it is the one I’m thinking of — gives performers a meal, which is quite friendly of them, but does not pay them in cash. I assume they pay for their coffee beans and for their staff. Why not performers? I understand the business model: pay only for that which will contribute to revenue. But the performer is not a vendor. He is a laborer. Perhaps better to say a laborer “on steroids.” I’ve said it elsewhere, honest wages for honest labor. The performers are an attraction. They are getting something in return that they benefit from. Why do coffeehouses not pay? Because they don’t have to.

    • Thanks for writing, Richie. Naturally, I meant it from the song creator perspective, but I do see your point. I don’t run a coffee house, so it’s hard for me to say. I’m sure there’s a line between offering local performers a stage and using local performers to draw a crowd. I don’t claim to know what that line looks like.

  • David Newhoff, I assume you are using irony in your reference to your youthful fear that President Reagan would start a nuclear war. To the contrary, Reagan was the first person in history to suggest and achieve reduction and limitation of nuclear weapons. It was called the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

    • That’s what you took away from this?

      That’s like:
      “while washing my car, i saw a meteor fall from the sky and crush my neighbors’ house.”
      — and you’re wondering what brand soap he was using while washing the car…

      Seriously…

      • James, it may have escaped your notice, but I was commenting on the political reference thrown in as a personal opinion of the author, not on the obvious theme of his article.

      • No, it didn’t escape my notice. Quite the contrary…
        I’m just amused that is what you came here to comment on.

  • David Newhoff: As a Bard student, you were worried that President Reagan would start a nuclear war? Reagan was the first in history to propose and achieve nuclear arms reduction, via the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

    • To Barton & Anonymous:

      Really? In the context of this blog, you decided to defend Reagan? But to answer your questions, yes, the treaty signed in 1991, but for which talks broke down in 1983 when the US began deploying intermediate-range missiles, there were concerns. Then, there was Reagan’s “bear in the woods” campaign spot. And it doesn’t matter if our concerns were misplaced as they were entirely consistent with Reagan’s tough-talk, bullshit rhetoric.

      • In the context of this blog, you’re the one who introduced politics. And it’s your blog, so whatever you wish. Just pointing out that some of us were not concerned about Reagan starting a war, and we turned out to be right.
        Otherwise, we are in agreement on the copyright issues.

      • To Barton: Actually, I didn’t bring politics into the original post, but referred casually to a broad sentiment that actually existed whether you agree with it or not — whether anyone agrees with it or not. If you review a great deal of pop culture in the early-mid 1980s, I think you’ll find a running theme of apocalyptic prognostication tied to Reagan’s particular brand of saber rattling. Regardless, while we could do several rounds on the diplomatic strategies of the Reagan administration, it would violate my own comment policy by straying far from the theme of the post. In that spirit, I’m glad to count you in agreement on copyright and fair trade. Thanks for writing.

      • I chose to defend Reagan (in the context of this blog) because you chose to denigrate him.

        If all you remember is “bullshit rhetoric,” maybe you were just hearing what you wanted to hear. Maybe you still are.
        I was reading and listening to speeches like this one, from 1981 http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/archives/speeches/1981/111881a.htm
        It took another 10 years to get to a nuclear reduction treaty, but this is where it started, with Reagan.

        Now that we’re done with that (I hope), let me express total agreement with your concern for copyright infringement, and the irony of well-to-do Westerners stealing intellectual content as they earnestly support fair-trade policies.

  • Sorry to chime in, David, feel free to delete if this comment violates policy, but I feel it needs to be said.

    To all the Reagan defenders with poor reading skills: what David actually wrote – and I quote – was this:

    In the 1980s, we were mostly hoping Ronald Reagan wouldn’t start WWIII with nuclear weapons

    That is a statement of fact – provided this was indeed the sentiment in David’s peer-group and we have no reason do doubt it is so. Turns out Reagan didn’t start WWIII, but that’s wisdom after the fact. Even if you think David was wrong to think so at the time, it’s completely irrelevant thirty years on.

    Seriously, it’s like someone saying “After 9/11, I thought there were WMDs in Iraq.” and someone rushing in to say “THERE WERE NO WMDS IN IRAQ!” Yes, we know that now, but thanks for sharing.

    • It’s still relevant 30 years on because David brought it up. I don’t dispute the “statement of fact” that he wrote, but thought I’d take the opportunity to set the record straight, since most people, even those with good reading skills, probably never even heard of START.

      • Not relevant to this post, and I don’t know anybody my age or older who hasn’t heard of START.

      • No it’s not, any more than someone saying they dropped Acid in the Sixties. But since you’re so keen on bringing history into this, riddle me these:

        1. START I was signed by which American President? (It’s one thing to say that something might be a good idea and another matter entirely to actually see it through.)

        2. What was the time on the Doomsday Clock during the Eighties and how did that compare with previous decades?

  • David, I think Faza is addressing you on these questions. You’ll find the answers on wikipedia, as you probably did yesterday when responding to my first post (or did you have those dates committed to memory?). I already know the answers so I’ll let you boys sort it out.

    • Have approved your comment in case Faza wants to respond, but that’s the end of it. I’ve already allowed this tangent to go on too long, and it’s heading down the road of everything I hate about comment threads and the web.

  • Me, too. Sorry for it all. You just got my goat a little with the jab at ol’ Reagan.

    Onward in the battle for intellectual property rights! I will be there with you all the way.

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