Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Missing Link of Folksy Copyright Law

Woody Guthrie's music reminds one of a central fact about not only folk music, but about modern cultural products in general: under many conditions, the contemporary notion of authorship can be rendered antiquated.

Guthrie freely admitted that much of his music was borrowed from previous folk musicians, and from songs that were part of what legal scholars deem the "cultural commons". In many senses, Guthrie wrote and re-wrote songs that had already been written and played for generations, meaning that many previous musicians served an authoring function in his music.

As one considers cultural products in the modern context, many different levels of authorship emerge. Music is written not by one individual, but by various musicians, mixed by sound engineers, packaged with art created by graphic designers, and this process is supervised by a team of producers and executive producers.

Through the recording process, a myriad of people fulfil various portions of the author function, usually under the employment of a large multi-national corporation.

In the United States, objections have been raised to the repeated extensions of copyright, in some cases, up to the lifetime of the author plus another 70 years, after which that product is to enter the cultural commons, and be considered public cultural property.

There's a fallacy at the heart of this notion, however. It's predicated on the assumption that a cultural work -- be it music, a book, a movie, or almost anything else -- was created by one and only one creator.

In the case of modern music, it could be argued that multinational corporations that fulfill an author function -- by virtue of having organized the entire process -- could hold onto a copyright indefinitely. After all, corporations are not bound by biology to have a finite lifespan. Rather, the lifespan of a corporation is larely determined according to its financial success or failure.

Moreover, recognizing the various author functions within a cultural product leads to some other challenges. A copyright law that recognized such differences would have to recognize that it may not be logically feasible to copyright a finished product as if it were indivisible, leading separate individuals to seek separate copyrights over their own contributions to that finished product.

A postmodern copyright law for a postmodern era could lead to some complications that even the most brilliant legal scholar may not predict.

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