Concerning Intellectual Property: A Conversation Between Pat Aufderheide and Ellen Seiter (Part Two)

Mitt Romney’s campaign recently faced a takedown notice from BMG on YouTube for incorporating a news clip of Obama singing a song owned by BMG. What does this case say about the current state of the debate? As these struggles reach those in power, will they develop a better understanding of what’s at stake for ordinary people in their dealings with major media companies?

Ellen: Important to note that all kinds of “legal” issues are tightly linked to the politics of race and class. Was BMG taking Obama’s side? Was YouTube? Meanwhile the Romney campaign just went to Vimeo and re-posted it, but without a link to their campaign website.

Now the counterpoint to this political ad, Romney’s rather weak vocal performance of “America the Beautiful” reminds us of a tried and true techniques for young media makers: use something in the public domain. But it ALSO refers back to an era where sheet music was a big money maker and many copyright statutes focused on protecting the rights of composers, music publishers, even player piano manufacturers. The laws derive from interest groups and from technologies of distribution—those on their way up and those on their way out. America the Beautiful was first published in 1910. Good to remember that we are always dealing with media industries under assault by new technologies — for the sheet music business that meant player pianos, records, and later xeroxing.

Interesting to compare to the Jackson Browne controversy during the last campaign, where Jackson Brown won damages for McCain using his song “Running on Empty.” Again it is a legal case inextricable from social and political contexts. But I also think that Jackson Browne still has the right to protect his intellectual property rights and control their use.

Pat:This kerfuffle demonstrates a number of things about the current state of fair use. First, it caused a huge media uproar; so copyright issues definitely are in the public eye, and they are generating conversations about how we can both circulate and grow culture.

Second, it shows how people come to exaggerate the issues. YouTube is required by law (the Digital Millenium Copyright Act) to take down any video that a content holder flags as infringing. As Ellen noted earlier, many copyright holders do issue takedown notices, typically the result of automatic programs matching content, which means a lot of fair uses get swept up into the net.

Then it’s up to the person who uploaded it to challenge the take down by employing their fair use rights, and explaining to YouTube why they believe it’s fair use. (Under law, you don’t have to be exactly precisely on-the-nose right with your fair use choices; you have to demonstrate reasonable judgment, and the law permits some squish.) Then if YouTube finds that credible, the video goes back up, and if the content holder wants to pursue legal action directly with the uploader, they can. In this case, it’s very likely that BMG issued the takedown request as a result of bot detection, not person detection. Romney’s campaign people explained it was fair use, and YouTube put it back up. No more has been heard from BMG and I’ll be shocked if there is.

Ellen: According to Politico it was at the request of BMG– but I guess that could have been bot-generated. Here’s some more discussion of it all.

Pat: So, my point on this one is that the system, such as it is, worked. Now, you could definitely say, and we definitely have, that pre-emptive takedowns are a hindrance to the employment of fair use, and disrespectful of that important First Amendment right. I haven’t noticed any policymakers listening to me or Public Knowledge or Electronic Frontier Foundation or any of the other geeky media policy folk more than they’re listening to Hollywood, music companies, and software companies; but it would be great to see a more organized constituency pushing on the DMCA. I wonder personally if the arrival in Washington, D.C. of Google and Facebook (aren’t you surprised it took them this long to set up DC offices??) will change the discussion. Ellen’s concern about Google’s media-ization are widely shared; but at the same time, Google and Facebook were opposed to media interests on SOPA/PIPA. Right now, though, copyright policy reform (e.g. DMCA reform) has a third-rail quality.

Third, the incident shows the ubiquity of fair use in our landscape. We see it in every daily newspaper (oh look, they quoted from a think tank report!), in the television news and in those invaluable and Viacom-owned shows The Daily Show and The Colbert Report; in every student paper (that footnoted quotation), in every scholarly work. And political campaigns routinely incorporate existing material, often edited in a way to denigrate the opponent.

There’s a common use of copyrighted material in political campaigns that is much dicier–the part where campaigns use popular songs without permission to attract and energize the crowd and as intros to the candidate jogging up to the platform. It’s just not clear how that use is transformative; it’s one of the uses the market serves directly. It usually comes to light because performers don’t agree with a politician’s perspective. And the politicians always claim fair use. Often the cases are just settled, either with payment or the candidate agreeing not to use the music any more.

You both are writing about legal issues from the perspective of media scholars. What do you think media scholars bring to these debates which are missing from previous work on intellectual property law? What do you think media scholars have to learn from legal authorities working in this space?

Pat: I am profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to work with Peter Jaszi since 2004 on the various projects that inform our book. I have learned an enormous amount, not just about the law but about how people regard, use and shape the law through their conceptualization, discussion and actions. Peter Jaszi is a legal scholar whose work is informed by some reading that media scholars do as well, especially in the areas of cultural studies and post-structuralism. I have brought a perspective shaped by the perspective of John Dewey on political participation and by Pierre Bourdieu, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams and other cultural theorists on the process of cultural production.

As a media scholar, one of the assets I also brought to the project was my networks of contacts in practitioner communities. Our work with documentary filmmakers, journalists, film scholars, communication scholars, and remixers has all been informed by earlier work on and with these communities.

Another asset I brought to the project was a long history of working on communication and media policy issues, in which access, public participation, and democratic process were major themes. Copyright policy is another realm of knowledge, but it is shaped by the same political process, economic and political stakeholders, and institutional structures that other policies are. And as with other communication policy issues, the infrastructural elements shaping expression often go unnoticed by most people, often until it’s too late to undo bad decisions.

Our work focuses on copyright policy, but copyright policy as it intersects with creative action. So we have been able to see inside people’s heads, in a way, to see not only what they think and think about but what they are avoiding thinking about. This has been absolutely fascinating. It has been a privilege.

Ellen: The work that Pat and Peter Jaszi have done for over a decade through American University’s Center for Social Media has made a tremendous contribution to the understanding of media scholars, while offering vital assistance to media practitioners, teachers and lawyers. Their work has really brought fair use to the attention of media studies scholars– who are not always rushing into legal topics– as well as media makers. We owe them a great deal.

I think media scholars bring an important HISTORICAL knowledge about audiences and about distribution technologies that is invaluable to these debates. All that stuff about the patent wars over film technology that you learn in film history class in college is still extremely relevant to the shifting power dynamics among those who invent and sell the technology and those who want to use it for creative purposes, as well as the middle managers in the distribution business.

My interest in this entire topic has been repeatedly revitalized by the work of two legal scholars who write the kind of painstakingly researched, thrillingly written, and deeply creative stories about our legal past that are a model of humanities work. I am thinking here of Adrien Johns and Catherine Fiske. Johns is important for his book Piracy in which he takes a very long perspective on history and how often the winners and losers can change in copyright and patent battles. Fiske is important for introducing a keenly focused attention to labor and how people control or lose the rights to their own work in her book Working Knowledge. Both scholars help us to remember that what happened in book publishing in the 18th and 19th centuries must be kept in mind as we deal with audio visual media.

How did you each become involved in work on intellectual property law? What motivates your recent books on this topic? How does it relate to your previous work?

Ellen: Way back in the 70s when I was a senior at UCLA, my family wanted me to go to law school. So I applied to film schools and law schools at the same time. I am eternally grateful to my sister Rose who advocated on my behalf that I could always go to law school later, but if I went to law school then I would never get back to film school. My co-author, Bill Seiter, is my brother and an IP attorney, so this stuff has been dinner conversation for twenty-five years. It was a fascinating part of the process of writing this book to recognize the differences in our disciplinary perspectives and which parts of the puzzle each of us were missing, given our academic training and professional experience.

Now I actually want to go to law school. JK.

But my initial interest in these matters came from my own experiences as a filmmaker, and from teaching film and video production for twenty years.. I finished my MFA in 1978 making experimental shorts and documentaries. We used optical printers then, no computers, and it was painstaking, but we did amazing things with found footage, and we freely used all kinds of materials. Even then, however, we knew not to mess with the music, but try to commission musicians for soundtracks. It always breaks my heart when students pour hours of work into a film and haven’t thought out what they can and cannot use from the onset if they want to be able to submit to festivals, etc.

By 2005, when I made my most recent documentary, Projecting Cultures: Perceptions of Arab and American Film, at USC, I was getting quotes of 20K for one minute of a 1950s feature film that was exclusively for educational use. (You can see the video and the clips from Hollywood and Egyptian films here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fmd4cUY7g-s

I had to conform to the requirements of my funding agency (The Sunnylands Trust/ Annenberg Center for Public Policy) and of USC School of Cinematic Arts. Like all big institutions they are wary of fair use and have undoubtedly made the situation much worse. Like many publishers, colleges and universities, and festivals, the bottom line is that they do not want to offend the donors, and in the case of my school that involved a big movie star who had appeared in the film and the studio that distributed it. We eventually got all three film distributors whose films we used to agree to give the clips for free, but only after we had used a lot of the budget for a rights clearance specialist, because studios don’t return calls from your average filmmaker. They want to know that everything about transferring the quality version of the dub, etc., will be done exactly as they specified. Pat has done so much important work (along with Peter Jaszi, and with extraordinary support from LA lawyer Michael Donaldson) on advocating for documentary filmmakers and their fair use rights, but to “win” still often involves a hefty price tag either in legal fees or clearance specialists.

Pat: Of all film schools, USC is the most rigid to my knowledge, and I agree with Ellen that it’s entirely related to the special relationship with major studio figures. It’s not just frustrating to USC filmmakers but to many others including staff who want to support teachers and researchers and who know the law is available to them. It’s also a reminder of the importance of practice in determining access to the law.

Peter Jaszi and I plunged into the lived experience of filmmakers’ creative struggles with copyright together. I knew Peter Jaszi from previous conferences on communication policy and copyright issues, when he invited me to a conference on copyright and culture. Like other non-lawyers there (he had made sure to get cultural actors there!), I found the concerns of scholars about “tight copyright” very compelling, but I was puzzled by why the media makers I knew weren’t complaining about it themselves.

That is still a fascinating issue for me. Many professional creators focus only on the threats in the digital landscape to traditional business models. Photographers in particular believe their profession is imperiled. Photographers never seem to worry, though, about the fact that most photographs capture copyrighted material in the picture taken. The reality that all cultural expression is in some way recombinant–that it all uses existing culture as a platform, that every one of us “stands on the shoulders of giants” (and no, Isaac Newton did not think up that phrase)–has been buried under a deluge of Romantic sensibility (the artist in the garret, creating a work of tortured genius in complete originality), bad teaching practices in K-12 (you can only use pictures from these licensed databases, and don’t copy!), and alarming FBI notices on our movies.

People confuse business models with creative process, and they moralize one part of the copyright regime. They believe they have simple property rights in stuff they’ve created, and that even if other people have a legal right to use it, that’s an immoral act. Many remixers, of course, just flip that problem around. They say it’s an immoral act to hoard your stuff, and you should give it away. Meanwhile, the law both incentivizes creative acts by granting a monopoly right that is limited, and by encouraging use of copyrighted material if you are making new culture in some way.

Anyway, I loved the idea of exploring that problem of how creative actors think about copyright in their creative process, and so did Peter Jaszi. We were lucky enough to get interest from Joan Shigekawa at the Rockefeller Foundation (she’s now doing great things at the NEA), and that one grant plunged us into an odyssey that hasn’t stopped.

Oh and by the way the answer to my question–we focused on documentary filmmakers, since I knew so many of them–was that documentary filmmakers simply were not aware of the depth of their self-censorship. When they learned how profoundly their creative process was crippled by their confusion on copyright and fair use, they created a code of best practices in fair use that changed their industry.

Pat Aufderheide is the Co-Director of the Center for Social Media and University Professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. She is the co-author with Peter Jaszi of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright (University of Chicago Press, July 2011), and author of, among others, Documentary: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007), The Daily Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), and of Communications Policy in the Public Interest (Guilford Press, 1999). She heads the Fair Use and Free Speech research project at the Center, in conjunction with Prof. Peter Jaszi in American University’s Washington College of Law.

Ellen Seiter holds the Nenno Endowed Chair in Television Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she teaches courses on television and new media history, theory and criticism in the Critical Studies Division. She is the author of The Internet Playground: Children’s Access, Entertainment and Mis-Education (Peter Lang, 2005), Television and New Media Audiences (Oxford, 1999), Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture (Rutgers, 1993) and Remote Control; Television, Audiences and Cultural Power (Routledge, 1989). Her latest book, The Creative Artist’s Legal Guide:Copyright, Trademark and Contracts in Film and Digital Media Production was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.