By What Right


What does it mean?

New technologies not only obviate old jobs and careers, they also challenge and often undermine old laws.

Like copyright.

When we run our video training bootcamps, we devote an enormous amount of time to rights and releases.  And, over the years, the constraints on rights and releases have become ever tighter, reflecting more than anything else, our litigious society.

Of course, the need for releases and the requirements vary from network to network, but at hear they are all the same. Secure the signed release of the participant, or the creator of the content.

In more and more cases, the release of created content can also carry a hefty fee for use.

The classic, of course, is “Happy Birthday”, which is owned by the Time/Warner Company.

The song was originally composed in 1893 by sisters Mildred and Patty Hill. They were kindergarten teachers.  The song first appeared in print in 1912.  In 1990, the rights to the song were purchased by Warner Chapel, a division of Time/Warner for $15 million and through many long and extensive ligitations, Time/Warner has established that they believe that their copyright will expire in 2030.

This is why in movies, when it is someone’s birthday, everyone sings “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow”, which is out of copyright.

If you ‘google’ Happy Birthday Rights, by the way, you get a breathtaking 11 million hits.

Copyright law was written as a reflection of an analog era, in which copying was limited by the technology itself.  You might make a copy of your favorite record on a casette, but try making a copy of the copy, and like photocopies, each one is inferior to the one before. There were built in limits to transfer of intellectual property.

But in the era of digital information, and as digitial information came to encompass text, then music and now video and just about anything else, copies are as simple as pushing a button. And so it global transmission, on Youtube.

Hence, technology and law are at a crossroads.

I have just read a fascinating book on this subject, called Remix, by Prof. Lawrence Lessig.

Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford and founder of the school’s Center for Internet and Society, so let me direct you to his book, which is filled with fascinating ideas and stories.

One idea that struck me, however, was footnotes.

One of the overriding principles that we repeat all the time is that with digitialization, video has come to resemble text more and more. It is about a simple to produce, about as simple to edit and about as simple to upload and transmit.  We are becoming increasingly a video driven culture, and as more and more people get their hands on cameras and edits, video is going to migrate more and more deeply into our culture as the lingua franca of our society.

If that is the case, then perhaps we should treat ‘rights’ to video the way we treat rights to text.

That is, footnote.

If every person who was writing a book or an article or even a term paper was required to find the author of a work they were quoting, and get their personal and signed permission to use that quote (and perhaps even pay them for it), our entire culture (certainly any literary aspect of that culture) would have ground to a halt several hundred years ago.  Text and books would have been strangled in the crib.

But that strangulation is exactly what copyright and releases are doing to our nascent video culture.  Strangling it.

Instead of building on the work that others have done and expanding upon it, (which is the basis of most serious writing), each creative person is expected to start from scratch each time.

This is not how creative work happens. This is not how academic work happens.  This is now how thinking happens.

In text we accept footnoting as enough. We give credit where credit is due to the original creator -but we don’t need written permission and we certainly don’t pay to use their work.

I think the reason behind this is probably that text cost so little to produce, (not taking into account the intellectual value of the content), but simply the work of sitting down and writing.  It would have been almost unthinkable to charge for the ‘reuse’ of that content, something we do in video without thinking twice.

But as the nature of video changes, as all it takes to make video is take out the camera and the laptop, perhaps video rights should come to reflect text rights. It doesn’t mean that original creators can’t make a profit.  David Halberstam, an often quoted writer, made a very nice living.  But when someone else quotes from his books, they don’t have to do into 6-month contractual negotiations with his lawyer to quote a paragraph. They just footnote.

Perhaps we should begin to think about video footnotes as well.

Just to give credit where credit is due.

Or, if you don’t agree. Well, be sure to send in a check to Time/Warner next time you sing Happy Birthday to your wife and post it on Youtube.


2 responses to “By What Right

  1. There is “fair use,” when journalism is being produced.

  2. I like Lessig’s idea. I created a short Flash animation after 9/11 and used free sounds and code for effects found off the web. I gave credit to the sound site and programmer in the credits.

    I can’t see the downside when someone gets footnoted nor could I see a downside to footnoting in video. If the original video material was that good having a video footnote would drive traffic to the original on the web or at the video rental store, whatever…

    I like your thinking Michael. 🙂

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