Midway Fair and the Creative Commons

I made a decision recently that I think is worth writing about: I released Midway Fair’s recordings to a creative commons license.

There are a few different types of artists. There are commercial, professional artists, people who have identified a need for a type of creative work and go out and create it. It’s admirable work if you can get it, and it really is work for those folks that make a living their whole life at it, and a ton of the great unsung heroes of any art scene belong to it — record producers and engineers, film and sound editors, graphic artists and ad creatives, etc. Then there is the bohemian, the artist who does just enough commercial work to eat and continue to buy materials for their art. Sometimes they have higher aspirations, but most of the time they know what they want to do and they continue to do it. I know a lot of artists like this: Miss Shevaughn and Yuma Wray, Matt Pless, Joy Ike. Some people you might think of as being in the first category are in this category, too. It’s pretty brutal out there. Then there’s people like me, who think they’re creative but aren’t motivated to singlemindedly devote their lives to an artistic pursuit. A lot of professionals call us “weekend warriors,” which sounds pretty snide to me, but I think the smart ones realize that we’re one of the backbones of the artistic community, the people who will buy things and be boosters for the people who are actually “making it” in any sense of the word.

When it comes to copyrights, for the most part they most protect the people at the top of the heap from theft and derivation and the people in the middle from just being ripped off even when they’re doing the work day in and day out. If something’s worth stealing, it was probably already successful on its own. No, I don’t have any data. I’m just speculating. The people they employ obviously benefit, too.

But people like me? Why on earth do I need a copyright?

See, for a long time, it was drilled into artists’ heads that if you create something, you need to copyright it because someone out there might discover and decide to steal your idea and go create a million dollar product with it. If this was ever true, it’s probably not true now. No one can make a mint off of something creative without having a serious amount of work behind it. And the people doing that work — I’ve got bad news for everyone who loves the indie scene, but it’s mostly the folks working for those traditional label bohemoths that reinvented themselves and are again the major money makers — the people doing that work aren’t the performers or the people creating stuff, so they can’t do anything with it and they just want the next big thing. They’re not going to steal a forgettable song and make 50 cents on Spotify if they can get it legitimately, pay you royalties, and make money off the next thing you do.

Yes, for the most part, the market functions on John Nash’s economic theories. Or at least, in my naive worldview it does.

But it gets more complicated. We spent so much of the 20th century living in this fantasy world of creativity, a paradise where artists became millionaires and made other people billionaires. But then the number of new recordings doubled (at least) every decade after 1900; at one point you could probably own every great recording that came out in a year, but that couldn’t last. Because now there was so much stuff, so much good stuff in fact, that as soon as there was an easy way to steal it (DSL and reliable analog-digital conversion techniques), people started stealing artistic media because they simply couldn’t afford to pay for it all and the world was telling them they needed to have all of it.

This is too short a post to talk about all my thoughts on the ethics of “stealing” (downloading) a non-physical commodity. But I can briefly discuss the harm I think that expansions of copyright law have done to artistic expression from a utilitarian standpoint. You see, copyright originally covered things for a very brief period of time. Gradually it has expanded so that it now covers things more than 70 years after the creator’s death. In other words, it has ceased being a protection for the artist, which is how many people choose to paint it, and has become a protection for the people who profit off the artists’ work and their heirs.

Consider this: Shakespeare ripped off his contemporaries constantly and wrote what we consider to be the greatest drama, and some of the greatest poetry ever in the world. Not in the English language, not in the 17th century of England. Look at how a movie is created: A team of people, work together writing a script to tell a story that millions of people will want to consume, hand off their creation to a massive network of artists and engineers who make it a reality. Look at how a record is created: A band takes some songs they’ve worked on and works with a producer and engineer to create a record that many people (presumably) will want to hear. Shakespeare’s plays might have sprung from his mind, but their implementation rests with the actors who performed them (who probably had some effect on the brilliance of his characterization during the writing process) and the culture that succeeded him. Art is collaborative.

So this brings me back around to creative commons. I’ve spent so much time arguing that copyright damages the progress of mankind without thinking about how I’ve dealt with my own creations: they’re registered with the U.S. copyright office.

So I’ve stopped being hypocritical and released Midway Fair’s recordings to Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Anyone who wants to make something (even money) out of “my” work can do so, as long as they are also willing to share their works.

Maybe this post will someday convince another artist like me to do the same with their works.

p.s. Thanks to Joe Scala for initially bringing the Creative Commons to my attention. I’d like to add that his own most recent album also falls under a Creative Commons license.

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