Reading recently about both open source computing and copyright laws got me thinking about the music industry, and companies' purported rights to songs and samples, and how we might measure what's lost or gained for whom when copyright laws put limits on creativity, speech, and commerce. It seems evident to me that the only ones who benefit from tight copyright laws (and even that "benefit" is dubious) are music companies: not the artists, not music purchasers, and certainly not the general public.
I'll take the example of The Grey Album, Danger Mouse's unauthorized mash-up of Beatles songs and Jay-Z lyrics. I'm using this example because I'm an enormous fan of the Beatles' original studio recordings, and I generally don't even have much use for covers of the songs. (I'll make exceptions for, say, The Wailing Souls' amped-up reggae interpretation of "Tomorrow Never Knows" -- they infuse it really well with their own energy; check it out! -- but listening, say, to William Shatner's berserk rendition of "Lucy in the Sky" makes my ears cry.) Anyway, my point is, I have an immense respect for the beauty and purity of the original album versions of the Beatles' songs, so I can even catch a glimmer of EMI's ostensible reasoning when they absolutely prohibit any other artist from licensing a Beatles sample. Of course, their motives are unlikely to be so aesthetic; more likely they want to keep public focus on the studio stars themselves, rather than some underground mixmasters who don't "deserve" to earn money from the guitar strummings of others, funneling it from the original artists. Seems fair enough, on the face of it.
But the example of The Grey Album shows just how inapplicable such justifications for overweening copyright laws are. First of all, in this particular case, Danger Mouse made his album freely available online, so he can't be accused of profiteering. Secondly, I submit that there's scarcely a Beatles fan alive who would merely download heavily remixed versions of their songs instead of buying The White Album, but who would have bought The White Album if only those Danger Mouse MP3s weren't available. That just makes no sense, and it shows how flimsy the financial argument is in this case. As a matter of fact, a freely available version of The Grey Album could potentially serve as excellent free advertising of Beatles songs to the Jay-Z fans who might not already own a Beatles album. Why does EMI want to limit the scope of its own product?
Perhaps they would indeed say it's about musical integrity; they wouldn't want great classic songs to be associated with sub-par or amateurish overlays. That possibility bugs me too, as I hinted above, but I trust that the classics will stand on their own, no matter who does what to certain versions of them. And why should we be prohibited from hearing the vast array of new interpretations that are possible? Listening to parts of The Grey Album for the first time this evening on YouTube I was struck by the way Danger Mouse drew out the most sinuous mini-riffs of "Long, Long, Long" and looped them into their own groovily flowing backdrop; I felt delighted to hear new possibilities within such familiar samples. Then I felt anger: why doesn't EMI want me to hear that? How could it possibly affect them one way or another if I want to listen to the fruits of various artists' combined imaginations?
Of course there's a parallel to open source computing, and the ways free access to code can open up endless possibilities in computing. I love the whole concept of boundless information sharing and its implicit possibilities; I suppose that's one of the reasons I'm becoming a librarian!