In the spring of 1967 Jimi Hendrix released Are You Experienced?, his first album, and The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My friend Rick bought Sgt. Pepper as soon as it was available and, incredibly excited by what he heard, called and played it for me over the telephone. I first heard “With a Little Help From My Friends”, “She’s Leaving Home,” and “A Day in the Life” on a spring afternoon while standing in my kitchen with a bakelite phone receiver pressed to my right ear. My first listening of Are You Experienced? came courtesy of another friend, who played it one Friday evening at full volume in his darkened bedroom. My hair stood on end at the opening chords of “Purple Haze.” I had never before heard music like that.
We experience music more immediately, more personally than any other form of popular culture. Movies and television required (until video-capable iPods and $1.99 episodes of Lost and The Office) that we sit and watch a screen. In my lifetime music has always been portable, first through car radios (my high-school car, a 1965 Plymouth Fury, had only AM radio which means I heard Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” about 1,000 times in 1970 alone), then through the Sony Walkman and its progeny, which led to today’s ubiquitous MP3 players. Technology has allowed us to accompany our lives with a personal soundtrack. We all have music that is ours. 1967 was also the year of The Graduate, “plastics,” and the birth of Dustin Hoffman’s career. I recall Dick Cavett asking Hoffman whether sudden fame had changed his life. Hoffman replied “It’s not like Mrs. Robinson plays when I go to the bathroom in the morning.” These days we can all have Mrs. Robinson–the Simon and Garfunkel original or the Lemonhead’s version–playing when we go to the bathroom in the morning.*
I’m thinking about this because of recent exposure to the inevitable boomer-retrospective articles and radio shows about the Summer of Love and the juxtaposition of two articles: Jason Fry’s “The Perils of Online Song Lyrics” in the 5/21 Wall Street Journal (subtitled “Yahoo’s New Lyrics Service Is Promising,But Why Can’t I Copy and Paste the Words?”) and Mark Helprin’s “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?,” an op-ed piece in the 5/20 New York Times. Helprin argues that copyright law should protect creative works to the same extent that law generally protects rights in personal and real property. Congress can, Helprin asserts, circumvent (my word, not his) the Constitutional provision authorizing Congress to extend a monopoly to authors “for limited times,” by vitiating the meaning of “for limited times:” “Congress is free to extend at will the term of copyright. It last did so in 1998, and should do so again, as far as it can throw.” Helprin is a far-more skilled and practiced polemicist than me, but to my simple mind this expression of his argument falls off the rails before it leaves the station. In its entirety Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Congress’s power to enact copyright law must serve the purpose of promoting the progress of useful arts. This argument (in Eldred v Ashcroft) failed to convince the Supreme Court to overturn the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the term to the life of the author plus 70 years, but the Eldred decision does not support the position that Congress can extend the term of copyright at will. Larry Lessig is articulating a more complete and scholarly refutation of Helprin’s argument.
The article about the Yahoo lyrics site explores the confluence of our appropriation of popular music for personal expression and the “propertization” of copyright. As Fry states “[s]ong lyrics are one of those things the Internet might have been made for . . .” Most of use have searched for song lyrics. The Archive of Misheard Lyrics at www.kissthisguy.com is a favorite site. Song lyrics are part of our aural wallpaper, a cultural touchstone, a form of shorthand, titles for the chapters of our lives (I’m in one titled “well . . . how did I get here?“), the raw material for wedding vows, and memory triggers. We hear a phrase in conversation that reminds us of a lyric that transports us to the time in our life associated with that song. (If reading that made you think of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, good.) Song lyrics are all that but, at the request of copyright holders, you can’t copy and paste lyrics from Yahoo!’s lyric site. According to Nicholas Firth, Chairman and CEO of BMG Music, Inc., a copied lyric is a lost sale–an idiotic comment that ignores the reality in which most of us live. If the choice is between paying a licensing fee to copy a lyric into a blog post and going without I’ll go without. Most people would say the same, even people old enough to remember Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” who did not grow up with file-sharing. I won’t pay the copyright holder a trespassing fee to walk in my own memories.
* It must have been kismet that caused iTunes shuffle to play the S&G version of Mrs. Robinson as I was writing this paragraph.
PS: A student sent me the link to this video a few days ago. Titled “A Fair(y) Use Tale” it summarizes principles of copyright law using clips from Disney animations. Cute, obsessive, and worth a look, if just to wonder: how long did it take to put this together?