Concerning Intellectual Property: A Conversation with Pat Aufderheide and Ellen Seiter (Part Four)

In some ways, independent media-makers seem caught in the middle of this struggle, seeking ways to protect their own creative products, but also often at the mercy of bigger corporate interests. What do we gain by looking at the issues from their perspective?

Ellen: It is crucial to preserve the civic participation element of digital media, the social consciousness of so many independent media makers, and the necessity of keeping content free to use by teachers. This is why Pat and Peter’s “Best Practices book is so incredibly helpful” as well as the whole Reclaiming Fair Use book (which includes an amazing set of best practices materials at the end.)

Pat: I think the interests of people like journalists and documentary filmmakers look a lot like the interests of many noncommercial creators. Many noncommercial creators are actually invested in some control over their work. One of the things you can learn from the professional communities that have created codes of best practices is that balance is possible; it’s possible to have some control, and also for other people to use your work without your permission. Context is everything.

One thing that’s interesting to watch in this process is the role of attribution or credit. It seems that no matter where you go--and my colleague Peter Jaszi has been to the backest of the beyond in Indonesia to look at folk art practices--people really want attribution. They may or may not care about payment. But recognition is huge. Look at the concern that kids on the Scratch remixing site have. The computer automatically credits their work when another child uses it, but that’s not enough for many of the kids; they want the new creator to recognize them and even say why their work was useful in the new work. (I’m cribbing on this last one from the work of Andres Monroy-Hernandez, btw.)

Even though attribution is so important to people--it often wards off copyright claims--it’s not required or even mentioned under fair use in the law. It happens to sway judges, but not because it’s in the law but because it shows good faith so they have a reason to think of you as well intentioned.

So again, practice matters. I think in our emergent DIY universe, attribution will be extremely important.

Many of these issues came to a head earlier this year around SOPA. What is your analysis of the debate around this law? What do you see as the fallout from what happened when citizens weighed in more heavily in response to this proposed legislation?

Pat: The SOPA/PIPA debate suffered from some of the Copyright Wars problems. Many creators were enlisted by large media companies, which informed them that piracy was going to take the bread out of their children’s mouths. Many Wikimedians and Wikipedia users saw the struggle--and let others construe it as such--as being about why information wants to be free. Meanwhile, the threats to the very communication infrastructure, as Google folk were painfully aware, were very real. The largest Internet companies and think tanks/NGOs did a good job of making that clear.

The polarization between copyright maximalists and copyright minimalists around SOPA/PIPA will, I think, make it harder to have a rational discussion when, as it inevitably will, the bill returns in some form. Some legislators were outraged at the blackouts, which occurred at a time when serious negotiations taking into consideration the concerns of critics, were going on, and derailed them.

One lesson of the conflict was that it’s important to develop a discourse in which balanced copyright is featured, rather than a moral-panic atmosphere. It is important to address the challenge of making copyright workable rather than construing the problem as either embracing or rejecting copyright’s monopoly rights as property. It is also clear, by the way, that people don’t have enough information about the basics of Internet infrastructure. The reason why fooling around with the Domain Name System was a terrible idea just wasn’t clear to most people.

What do we see as the most effective mechanisms for changing current policies around intellectual property? Which mechanisms do you think give the most hope to copyright holders? to grassroots participants? To independent artists?

Pat: I hope I’ve given some idea in this discussion of the importance of education, and an investment in understanding creativity as a social act. I think more constructive political actions will follow a shift in habitus, to invoke Bourdieu, around creativity in culture. Some of that change is happening around the spread of DIY culture, but it needs to be accompanied by a claiming of Constitutional rights in copyright to avoid a construction of DIY culture as the consumer end of commercial culture.

Ellen: I do not feel optimistic. The size of Google and its moves to enter the realm of mainstream TV, film and publishing as a distributor does not bode well. Politicians are, of course, very dependent on media distribution companies for their own election campaigns and this will always hamper what can be achieved in terms of legislative action.

What do you see as the value of attempts such as Creative Commons or Copy Left to imagine alternative copyright regimes as opposed to shifting interpretations of existing laws and practices?

Ellen: Creative Commons, for anyone new to this debate, is a non profit corporation founded by legal schlars Lawrence Lessig and James Boyle and their collaborators. It has helped thousands of artists and scholars to share their work in a way that protects their rights while also letting others freely use, distribute, remix, tweak and build upon your work, as long as they give you credit. It has been a powerful force in keeping the Internet and publishing more open. The “Share Alike” license offered by Creative Commons means that you can find work (photos, music, etc.) to use in your own project but then your project must also comply with the “Share Alike” model. It has been a lifesaver for academics and amateur video makers. I still have the feeling that CC licenses primarily work for content creators who have another means of making a living-- a day job, if you will-- like academics. Or a trust fund. Some other revenue stream. With the increasing globalization of Big Media-- there are going to be increased challenges.

Pat: To the extent Creative Commons is seen as one of the tools people have to rebalance copyright, a tool that resides on the monopoly rights holder side of the equation, I think it’s great. If it’s seen as either a guerrilla attack on copyright or the dawn of copyright-free culture, well, that kind of thinking stops people from getting to any kind of a solution.

Copyleft work generally has done a great job of putting copyright issues on the map. If people get so frustrated that they despair of rebalancing copyright, they will, I’m afraid, move from idealism to cynicism. So it’s important to avoid alarmism, moralizing, and utopianism, if we want to find ways to foster culture-creating for a digital, DIY environment. Dreams are great, ideals are great, but solutions for waking-world problems always deal with the highly imperfect environment we live in. Ellen’s book is full of great practical advice for just that.

Part of what has given some moral and ethical complexity to the debates about copyright is that the industry often seeks to defend the “rights of artists” but in practice, artists are often forced to sign their rights away to corporate ownership and may be as badly exploited by studios and labels as they are threatened by infringement by unauthorized consumers. Where do the artists themselves stand in current debates around intellectual property?

Ellen: Yes, the entire history of the film/TV/music industry is full of exploitation of artists. If young people today were better educated about the bloody struggles to get unions, they would understand more about their value. Artists’ have a fighting chance when a contract is involved, and an even better chance if they are members of a guild, a union, or some kind of professional association that can educate them about their rights-- and this takes some time. Just because artists’ are ripped off by studios and music companies, however, does not mean we want to do away with employment contracts, because that is what the entire structure of labor protections are based on. There is a lot of lawyer-bashing in the DIY community, which I think is extremely short-sighted. Of course there are corrupt lawyers out there. But we need to get past some of the early utopianism of this movement and also take a long, hard look at what is happening in terms of shrinking employment and the myriad ways young people are enticed to work for free. I am hoping some of the pushback on unpaid internships by educational institutions will begin to make for some policy changes. We need lawyers like Peter Jaszi and Michael Donaldson, and it takes about one second for a talented kid to figure out why he might want to be represented by a professional agent or attorney once the prospect of real financial remuneration comes through.

Pat: Yes, I agree with Ellen that people need to know the history that won them the rights they have. I also think doing this work has allowed me to meet many creative and supportive lawyers, whose work has helped to change the environment for artists. It is altogether true that large media corporations have all too easily enlisted artists into the company’s private-interest battles using Romantic notions of artistry and alarmism.

Another recent controversy concerned the role of parody in our current understanding of intellectual property law as playwright David Adjmi received a cease-and-desist notice for his play, 3C, which appropriated and responded to the classic sitcom Three’s Company. More and more of our current creative practices involve acts of sampling and remixing, some of which meet legal standards of parody and others do not. How effective and appropriate do you see current law at policing the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate forms of remix?


Ellen: David Adjmi’s 3C is an interesting example because this case involved a clear example of fair use under the satire or parody ”safe harbor.” It also sheds light on the differences between theatrical and television understandings and professional practice of copyright. The play is set in the 70s and centers on roommates in an apartment in Santa Monica. It deliberately evoked the popular 70s sitcom where two women and a man are roommates, and the man has to pretend he is gay to satisfy the uptight landlord that no co-habitation is going on-- and for half the show’s gags. Three’s Company” ran on ABC from 1977-1984-- and is notorious for Suzanne Sommers as a classic dumb blonde type. Adjmi’s version is a black comedy in which the male roommate really is gay and the satire and pathos revolve around him “playing” gay When the cease and desist letter came out, Adjimi, even though he is a published playwright, did not have the funds for a legal defense. Reviewers of the production, which ran for five weeks off-Broadway, called 3C a black comedy-- Adjmi said he tried to imagine what Chekhov would do with “Three’s Company.” The production went on as planned, and the show closed. What I would want to point out about the case, though, is that Adjmi, as a member of the Dramatist’s Guild, was able to rely on some important friends-- Stephen Sondheim and Tony Kushner were among the signatories on a letter in support of Adjmi, and Jon Robin Baitz (“Other Desert Cities”, and the TV series Brothers and Sisters”) rallied the theatre community and offered to pay his legal fees. This is a case where a community of professional artists in one of the last bastions of unionism-- NY theatre---- may have kept the lawyers at bay. Adjmi did not respond to the letter, which said it could not be performed again or published. It’s worth noting, however, that nothing can invite the wrath of studio lawyers quicker than tampering with a television show that has syndication earnings.

Pat: I appreciate this background. I haven’t seen the play, and so can’t have an opinion on its employment of fair use (in which parody is an instance), since context is everything in fair use, so I have no opinion on the case. David Adjimi appeared, according to the New York Times, to be stalled out at first no because he hadn’t sought out legal counsel and didn’t want to incur any costs.

I’m glad he has influential friends. But I also think that if he does have a fair use argument, he also has friendly organizations to turn to. I believe there is substantial pro bono legal counsel on viable fair use cases. If I were him, I would turn to the ACLU or to the Stanford Fair Use Project, or to the IP legal clinics at University of Southern California, University of California at Berkeley, or Fordham University. They all, along with Electronic Frontier Foundation, have lawyers who litigate pro bono on fair use issues. (EFF typically deals with digital issues.) I hear from lawyers from all of them, calling me looking for promising cases.

Adjimi’s fair use argument does not have to be that he has a parody. He merely has to have a transformative purpose, and use the appropriate amount to meet that purpose. He has to not be using the elements of the sitcom in order to give the same kind of pleasure to the audience in the same way that the original does. I gather from the scanty description of the play that I can access online and from Ellen’s description that the play depends on the audience’s familiarity with “Three’s Company” to make a statement about the cultural values invoked and expressed by the sitcom. Well, that’s a transformative purpose. I probably would have to see the play to decide for myself if the amount taken was appropriate. But certainly if you’re going to invoke “Three’s Company” you want to have a certain amount of the package of the elements to play with.

How effective is the law at policing the boundaries? Well, that depends on what you mean, I guess. The law isn’t an abstract element. We carry our sense of the law with us. David Adjimi appears to have a fairly shaky idea of his rights under fair use, and his advisors do too. He doesn’t have a great way to do a risk analysis, since his community of practice, playwrights, haven’t acted as a community to decide what they need from the law and asserted it within a code of best practices in fair use. He hasn’t chosen to find out how related communities of practice think about it, by consulting their codes of best practices in fair use. Or at least he hadn’t as of the reports I read.

It’s easy for the “Three’s Company” folk to issue a cease-and-desist letter. It’s routine, as Ellen notes, when you have a valuable property. It costs nothing more than the price of a lawyer’s time to dictate the letter, and under the law no matter what they say in that letter, there’s no penalty. So they can claim, bluster, threaten, as they like. David would have to know his rights or find a pro bono lawyer who does, in order to resist.

But the law is pretty good, actually, on the fair use side. And not just for David, but for remixers in many media. It’s flexible, accessible, adaptable. Judge’s interpretations have been pretty stable in stressing transformative purpose combined with appropriate amount for 25 years. But in practice it means what it means to the people who most use it. So if the cease-and-desist letter writers use it and the receivers of the letters don’t, then the cease-and-desist letter writers win.

If the law weren’t otherwise so pathologically unbalanced, we wouldn’t have to care about fair use. But since copyright is effectively eternal (at least for our creative lifetimes), default, and extending so far through derivative works, we have to care. Sigh.

Good news? The more we understand our rights, the quicker we can get on with DIY remixing and sampling.

And let me take this moment to say it’s a dang shame that musicians haven’t been able to organize themselves to decide what they need from existing music in order to make new music. The law would in theory permit a wide range of borrowing. Several cases have come close to engaging fair use and music, including the first two Bridgeport cases (discussed in the book). But people settle out of court after a first-level judgment that doesn’t address fair use, and a precedent is set. This leaves judges and music producers down the line with the general impression that in music, people always get licenses. Practice. Practice is really really a big thing. If musicians practice a clearance culture, they create precedents that lead to more clearance culture.

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.