A Night of Copyright Conversation

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Last night, The Recording Academy’s Memphis Charter, presented a seminar entitled “Intellectual Property 101” by local New Orleans entertainment attorney Ashlye M. Keaton.

Though neither I nor my wife were the targets for this particular presentation (both at least somewhat beyond the basics of copyright and neither of us musicians), it was an opportunity to brush up on music copyright issues, get some differing opinions on copyright matters and do some networking with local artists and attorneys.

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The event certainly did not let us down. It was nice to get offline, away from tech circles and into a room filled with artists discussing the copyright issues that affect them.

So what did I learn while I was there? The answer goes well beyond the talk itself.

The Presentation

Keaton’s presentation was a good overview of copyright and trademark issues for those who are uninitiated. Also, as with most copyright presentations that don’t last several days, it was a brief overview of some of the key areas of the law, not an in-depth discussion.

Still, it was very valuable and I could easily see the merit to those who were just being introduced to the details copyright. Having given similar talks myself, I know well that the purpose of these presentations is not to create people who are knowledgeable about copyright, but to give some basic information, clear up some falsehoods and, more importantly, get people thinking about these issues.

On that front, Keaton did a wonderful job. I even picked up a few things about the Electronic Copyright Office system and the registration process I did not know. I was also able to learn and clarify some terminology used in music licensing.

All in all, it was a solid presentation and the audience seemed to learn a lot from it.

The Audience

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About 60 people showed up for the event and, after mingling in a lounge area (pictured), headed in to a standing-room only studio for the presentation.

The audience was an ecclectic mix to say the least. Mostly members of the local New Orleans music scene, there was a wide variety of people there. Most were younger, 20’s and 30’s, and most tended to be musicians themselves. Other than that, there wasn’t a significant trend.

Also in attendance were a large number of school children, which was nice to see as the talk itself was a good introduction, without any indoctrination or pontificating, like one often gets from both sides on the Web.

Everyone who showed up was there to learn. People were taking notes and listening intently. It was clear that this issue meant a lot to the crowd, including the children, and they were working hard to take in as much as they could.

The Q&A

Typically, at these kinds of talks, the Q&A is the true meat. It’s not only when the best discussion takes place, but also when you get to learn the exact issues on the audience’s mind.

It was clear that much of the audience, despite working in the music industry, didn’t have an extremely robust understanding of copyright. Most of the questions were fairly basic, a lot of it recapping and clarifying what was in the presentation with real-world examples. However, the concerns were very real and I could see “light bulbs” going off in people’s minds as various points were being made.

What was interesting, though understandable, was that the words “file sharing”, “piracy” and “bittorrent” never came up. In fact, only one question dealt with the Web at all and it was from an individual who was hosting Web sites for bands.

Most of the questions revolved around either A) Sampling and using other material legally and B) How to preserve rights in one’s own work without accidentally giving away a portion (work for hire issues, etc.).

They were interested more in the legal elements of creating music, not selling it. This isn’t a surprise, especially considering the New Orleans music scene, but is in great contrast to the debate we often see online.

And that is exactly what is so refreshing. The debate, discussion and rhetoric in the room was cool and calm. Though it was clear many in the room were not fans of the major labels, there was no “!@#$ the RIAA!” and though many made much of their living off music sales, there was not anger toward file sharers.

Though disagreements were rare, it seemed like the type of place where real discussion could take place on the issue.

It felt like a place where some actual good on the topic was being done.

Bottom Line

When referring to the copyright debate online, we often refer to it as a “copyfight”, “battle” or “war”. All are apt descriptions.

As Mark Helprin found out after publishing his op-ed, wading into the copyright war online paints you as a target and the results, especially for the unprepared, can be ugly.

Offline, the debate is much different. In this room at least, you had artists and musicians who just want to create and distribute works while having the law support them, not hinder them. That includes both keeping the rights to the works they create and letting them work, within reason, with the previous creations that inspired them.

This highlights the importance of making sure everyone has good information about copyright law and the need to discuss these things as human beings.

When you’re dealing with the future of culture, how people can make creative works and the control they can have over their works, you deal with sensitive issues that affect people’s self-image and their ability to make money. It is too easy in those cases to draw battle lines and create an us vs. them mentality, something that simply increases the vitriol.

As I left there, I learned a lot from the room, just not the lessons I was expecting.

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