Thursday, April 30, 2009

Caught by the (Copyright) Fuzz

I wrote back in September that I had put a short film I'd made in college up on YouTube. Today I discovered that my little movie had been flagged because some of the audio content in it matched music belonging to Warner Music Group (WMG). This is true; it did feature, without permission or attribution, the first 37 seconds of "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin. The consequences for this finding are low, as YouTube simply muted the video. Observe [warning: simulated gore and muted swearing (the latter was muted in the original as well, incidentally)]:

First of all, I'm not sure why the YouTube video I linked in the song title above hasn't been caught, while mine has. I used only half a minute of the song, whereas shotguy1 posted the whole thing. Sour grapes.

I do have the option of changing the music, either automatically through YouTube to a copyright-free piece of music selected from what they have available, or to something I provide. I could go the route that the very funny Cartoon Network show "The Venture Bros." has on occasion, and provide a reasonable sound-alike song. I actually know exactly how I would structure this sound-alike, but I don't have the means or know the right people to produce it. Nor do I care to go to the trouble.

My other option, which I also will not pursue, would be to try to make a claim of Fair Use of the music. I would probably lose this, and it would be idiotic to try because it would involve lawyering up against the #3 media & entertainment conglomerate in the world. My having produced and shown this movie at the Titular Head student film festival (which still shouldn't have a Wikipedia entry) in 2001 is likely not a problem: it was a private event and, it could be argued, was for an educational purpose.

However, out in public, you have to fulfill one of two major criteria to successfully claim fair use of copyrighted material: it has to comment on or criticize the material in its use, or it has to be a parody of that material. As this article shows, these are both tricky. In my case, my use of Zeppelin was not a parody. My movie is a parody, but of Mentos commercials and to a lesser extent Quentin Tarantino (NSFW), not the song "Whole Lotta Love."

I should mention tangentially that I think copyright law has run amok. It used to be that copyright on a creative work would extend long enough for a creator to derive financial benefit, thus encouraging creativity, and then expire, letting the world use the work as anyone saw fit. Recently, though entertainment lobbies have worked to repeatedly extend copyright to protect their profits. The late singer/songwriter and US Congressman Sonny Bono was a big proponent of such extensions, to the point that the copyright extension of 1998 was named in his memory.

Lawrence Lessig is a law professor at UCLA and specializes in copyright and digital media issues. He has repeatedly given excellent presentations on why indefinite copyright stifles creativity. Here's a shorter one (18 min):

One point he has made on occasion, which I think really puts copyright in perspective, is the fact that one of the biggest corporations to fight for the extension of copyright is the Walt Disney company. Several of Disney's most popular films were based on works that had expired from copyright at the time the movies were made, but would not have expired if today's copyright laws were in effect back then: Pinnocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, and The Jungle Book were all published within 100 years of their Disney film being made. What would art, theater or film be today if Shakespeare's plays had had their copyright repeatedly extended? Where would Disney be if the Brothers Grimm or Charles Perrault or Hans Christian Andersen had been able to indefinitely extend theirs?

In any case, my short-lived career as a provider of YouTube content appears to be over.