Cohen and copyright

The New York Times recently reported a story on the singer and composer Leonard Cohen’s upcoming tour, after a 15-year hiatus from live music performances.

Here is one of Mr. Cohen’s quotes that most grabbed my attention (he is speaking about the ownership of his songs, which have been popularized by other, younger performers):

“My sense of ownership with these things is very weak,” he responded. “It’s not the result of spiritual discipline; it’s always been that way. My sense of proprietorship has been so weak that actually I didn’t pay attention and I lost the copyrights on a lot of the songs.”

When I mentioned this story to C.E. Hanifin, the acclaimed journalist and music critic, she said: “If Leonard Cohen can’t keep track of his copyrights, I’m sure there are a lot of other artists who need help, too.”

Even if you don’t own a Leonard Cohen album, you are probably familiar with some of his songs. As the New York Times article pointed out, many popular artists have covered his works. For example, Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” has been covered more than 200 times by such artists as Jeff Buckley and John Cale.

How different from other artists (like The Beatles) who zealously guard their intellectual property.

So, how does one lose a copyright?

There are several ways. First, you can neglect to read a contract from, say, a manager or corporation like a media company who gets you to assign your creative content rights to them. Along similar lines, you can sell the rights. Or, you can donate them to the commons through a public release, or creative commons-like license.  Be wary, since once that copyright is gone it is usually very hard to get back.

Regardless of whether an artist decides to defend or give up their copyrights, every creative person should at least know the basic rules so that they can choose which path to take.

Acknowledgements: C.E. Hanifin.

Copyright Criminals!

Hi everyone. In this post I’ll talk about Kembrew McCleod’s lecture as part of the recent “Intellectual Property Controversies” series held here at Michigan Tech (see previous post).

I first heard of Kembrew a few years ago when he played a prank on the i.p. (intellectual property) system. To make a point about how copyrights and trademarks are used by corporations to limit the public’s free speech, Kembrew registered “freedom of speech” as a federal trademark. He later made headlines by asserting that trademark against AT&T, since they tried to place an ad in a local newspaper that used the tagline “freedom of speech”.

Kembrew is about to release a film he co-produced with Benjamin Franzen, called “Copyright Criminals“. I saw the film as part of a free sneak preview screening at Michigan Tech. The film does a nice job of interviewing hip hop artists like Chuck D. who, in the ’90’s, sampled key sounds from music legends like George Clinton and Clyde Stubblefield.

The sampling was done as part of a massive creative excercise to further the emerging Hip Hop and Rap music genres. Little did the artists know that, once they had beguin to make some money, they would be flooded with letters from the music studios that viewed the sampling as massive copyright infringement. Hence the movie’s controversial title, “Copyright Criminals”.

The sneak peek was followed up by Kembrew’s talk, which focused on how he viewed the entire copyright system as broken. Kembrew called on a massive engagement in the public consciousness on how copyright laws limit expressions and creativity. 

That insights is an important one, I believe. Copyright really does touch everyone. Anyone who consumes media, software or information engages copyright. Right now, I am creating copyrights as I type. Right now, these copyrights are being distributed over fiber cables all over the world, often without my express permission. It’s o.k. I won’t send any cease and desist letters! That reminds me, I need to post a creative commons license on this blog to put everyone on notice it is o.k. to post, re-distribute, and copy this blog anywhere for any purposes, as long as attribution is mentioned.

For the next post I’ll review the next lecture speaker: Danny Obrien from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The EFF is a civil rights organization that ensures companies don’t use intellectual property to quash your civil liberties, like privacy and freedom of speech.

In the meantime, please keep an eye out for “Copyright Criminals” and support them by buying some merchandise!