[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
I share, you rip off, they pirate
Copyright law has become a tool for the powerful, argues technology analyst Bill Thompson, but that is not the way it is supposed to be.

Lord of the Rings
Return of the King DVD has appeared online
I spent the weekend enjoying the products of other people's intellectual effort, and all for free.

I listened to the Grey Album, read some of Lawrence Lessig's new book on creativity and the internet, and watched The Return of the King on DVD at a friend's house.

Only one of these activities was entirely legal: Professor Lessig has made a copy of his book available under a Creative Commons licence which allows it to circulate freely without payment, as long as it is not exploited commercially.

One was pretty clearly illegal. The Return of the King is not released on DVD until 25 May, but all six gigabytes (or so), is available to download for those with a broadband connection and patience.

Happily for my son Max, who is a big fan of the movie, that number includes a friend of mine who was pleased to show off his success in stealing from Warner Home Video.

I felt uneasy about enjoying the movie, since although anyone can make music in a bedroom studio, film-making needs the millions of dollars that come from DVD rentals to support future work.

So I would like to reassure Peter Jackson that Max will be spending his pocket money on the film when it appears in the shops.

But my third exercise in online distribution was the really interesting one.

Legal battleground

The Grey Album consists of 12 songs created as an experiment by DJ Danger Mouse.

He mixed the vocals from Jay-Z's Black Album with music elements sampled from The Beatles' White Album and circulated a few thousand promotional copies before EMI, who own the copyright, notified him that the album was in breach of their copyright and it was withdrawn.

Bill Thompson
Danger Mouse wants his music to be heard and is being stopped by a large corporation and its lawyers: his only route to an audience is through the web
Naturally, copies are circulating widely on the internet, and a couple of weeks ago one of my students was kind enough to pass the files on to me.

It is not, I have to admit, great music, but it is interesting and worth listening to as an example of what sampling and mixing can do.

The Grey Album is clearly a new work of art, inspired by its two sources in the same way as Cezanne influenced Picasso. Yet EMI believe they can stop it, and are using copyright law to do so.

Whether or not they really do have a strong legal case, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation has questioned the validity of their claims, their expensive lawyers have managed to persuade Danger Mouse to withdraw his work from public view, and this is where Professor Lessig comes in.

Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford University and one of the leading figures in the Creative Commons. In 1999 he wrote Code, the book that for the first time made it clear to non-technical people that the internet is controlled by the programs that create it, and that regulating the net is not only possible but inevitable.

Since then he has been heavily involved in the battle against those who are using new technologies and copyright law to restrict our online freedoms, especially our freedom to create new work that builds on the work of others.

Free Culture argues that cultural creativity is being undermined by rights holders who are abusing the power they have under existing copyright and intellectual property law.

For him, "the opposite of a free culture is a 'permission culture' - a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past".

Danger Mouse has not been granted that permission, and the result is that his music is forced underground, circulating via websites which operate in fear of a cease and desist letter from a corporate lawyer.

Creative possibilities

Both Prof Lessig and I can appreciate the difference between listening to the Grey Album and watching Return of the King.

DJ Danger Mouse
DJ Danger Mouse: Reaching music fans via the internet
Danger Mouse wants his music to be heard and is being stopped by a large corporation and its lawyers: his only route to an audience is through the web.

Peter Jackson wants to control the circulation of his films in order to recover the costs of making them and pay for more, and it is reasonable for him to do this.

As Prof Lessig says in the introduction to his book, "a free culture is not a culture without property; it is not a culture in which artists don't get paid. A culture without property, or in which creators can't get paid, is anarchy, not freedom".

Copyright emerged as a bargain between creative people and the state, a bargain which gave creators certain legal rights in the belief that doing so would benefit society as a whole.

It is hard to see how EMI's suppression of the Grey Album helps anyone.

Whatever their legal rights, EMI have no moral right to limit Danger Mouse's creativity in this way.

By doing so, they make it clear that existing laws are simply not good enough to cope with the creative possibilities which are open to us all in the digital world.

We need to find the balance between the freedom exemplified by the Grey Album and the anarchy towards which completely unregulated sharing of stolen intellectual property could lead.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific