Thursday morning I logged onto YouTube and found that my account had been frozen for copyright infringement. It's happened before, but this time I was instructed to watch a five-minute cartoon from the folks behind Happy Tree Friends about being a dirty, content-stealing pirate as well as take a quiz once it was over so I could better understand what evil I had committed against whatever giant faceless corporate overlord I had angered.
Obviously, I took it well.
The video in question was a cover of Prince's "Darling Nikki" done by defunct Houston goth act Delicate Terror. I had uploaded it as part of a project to recover and rank great Houston cover songs for an article. This one made No. 4 on the list if I remember correctly. It never appeared on commercial release as the album Entelechy & Ruin remained incomplete when Delicate Terror disbanded in 2002, according to Spike the Percussionist.
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Prince is famously vindictive about his intellectual property, shutting down pretty much any attempt to put his songs on YouTube in any way, shape or form. This has resulted in some truly embarrassing moments, such as when he covered Radiohead's "Creep" live at Coachella, then proceeded to send copyright infringements to anyone who uploaded live footage of the song. Only the intervention of Thom York himself, who, you know, wrote the freakin' song, allowed the videos to finally be reposted.
Then there was the time the mother of a toddler got hit with a infringement notice by Prince and Universal Music Group in 2007 after she filmed her toddler dancing to "Let's Go Crazy." Represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, she sued UMG. The ultimate decision in the case was that entities like UMG must actually consider the idea of fair use before they just send out their notices.
After completing my mandatory test initiative, I decided to reach out to the only voice I trust on the matter of music and copyright, Mark Hosler of Negativland. His 2005 treatise on copyright law, included in the album No Business, remains one of the most important works written on the subject; you can read it here. No one has ever spoken more eloquently on the nature of modern copyright and the idea of fair use as it applies to music.
Hosler was extremely patient with the pissed-off reporter who started bugging him, and after he calmed me down explained that while he totally understood my frustration, he had watched the video and considered it a point of progress.
"This is much more enlightened than anything I saw ten years ago," he says. "Courts are now weighing fair use. The video uses a lot of qualifying language to tell you that you may be violating copyright. They explain fair use. This is way better than when they would just go around shutting down anything that even mentioned a movie clip or a song."
Hosler explained that YouTube is in a tremendous bind. On the one hand, it's the outlet for millions of independent producers who want the Internet to be as free as the mountain air. On the other, it's also beholden to huge megacorporations that are very conservative and want to protect their intellectual property at all cost. Believe it or not, YouTube actually does try very hard to please both sides.
One of my very first stories for Rocks Off was following teacher Ally Townshend, or Ally ASL, who made it a point to create sign-language videos set to songs by major artists like Ke$ha. It was a very warm thing to do, particularly in her capacity as a teacher for the hearing-impaired. UMG and Warner Music Group both had her account shut down for infringement, a move that didn't make either them or YouTube look good. When the victim is an adorable young woman made of freckles trying to bring music to kids who can't hear and the oppressors are some of the most powerful companies on Earth, guess who everyone sides with?
Yet, with the aid of the EFF, Ally ASL was back online in a very reasonable time and allowed to continue her work under fair use.
"The system is slow," says Hosler. "But it actually does sometimes work."
It's not a bad thing that YouTube is trying to educate people about copyright law and fair use. Most people aren't that versed in it, and it can't really hurt. It certainly annoyed me that I was called a bad boy for bringing out a song that cannot possibly ever have cost Prince or UMG a fraction of a cent, and I worry that even with the light-hearted animated approach the video is just going to intimidate people.
Still, I concede that it's possible I did wrong. The article is long behind me, so it didn't seem worth fighting for. I've got the MP3 on my iPhone still, and if you want to hear a Houston take on the Purple Rain track, then Mike Terror also did one.
It does bother me, this idea of mindless adherence to protected works. It just seems to me that the idea of people out there playing your songs, as long as they're not reaping any sort of real profit, should be worth more than the meager protection you earn by blasting the internet. Hosler concurs.
"This system is designed to reward you more for being a sociopath," he says. "Hopefully we're moving towards a more common-sense approach."
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!