The Lawyer as Artist

Yesterday, I came across a blog post that was highlighted by The Dean’s List, Dean Kay’s daily listing of online articles relating to the music business and copyright law. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested either topic. Anyway, the first article Mr. Kay listed was one by Mark A. Fischer, Esq., of the  Duane Morris firm, called “Artists, lawyers and specialness.”  I agree with most of what Mr. Fischer had to say. Artists are very special and as Mr. Fischer aptly points out, they are different from practitioners of other professions in that they are creative and are often willing to pursue their craft without compensation.  After all, we lawyers, wouldn’t be in the lawyering business purely for the love of it. We do it to pay the bills.

However, here’s where I take some slight exception to Mr. Fischer’s comments. And, I suspect that upon further reflection even he would agree: the best of us, in any profession, whether law, medicine, banking, teaching, hairdressing, auto repair or computer programming, are creative. We don’t just do things the way everybody else does. Most of us who take pride in our work try to be the best at it and that often entails trying (and sometimes failing) to do something new and different.

And then there are those of us lawyers who fancy themselves creative artists, as well. There have been many who successfully combined legal and literary careers, such as Louis Auchincloss, Scott Turow and John Grisham.  As a songwriter and performer, I feel I can connect with artists, especially musicians, in a way that other lawyers can’t. For example, last week I met with a client, an aspiring pop singer-songwriter and his manager. We were brainstorming on how to move his career forward and he was pleased that I spent as much time talking about and analyzing his music, from chord progressions, to lyrics, to piano licks, as I did going over legal and business issues.

As a lawyer, I’m always looking at new ways of approaching problems. And it’s that creativity with respect to my legal work that’s made me realize that it’s often hard for artists, whether musicians, writers, dancers or painters, to have access to convenient, affordable legal advice. So, I’ve put my creativity to the test, done some homework and will soon be announcing my new service targeted to artists of all stripes. So, stay tuned….Artist at work…

On Presidents, Copyright and a King

As we all know, today was the ceremonial inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term as President (although the official one was yesterday). Many have pointed out how fitting that the inaugural of our first African American President would occur on the day honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.   But while Mr. Obama took the oath of office on one of Dr. King’s personal bibles and alluded to his ideals, the President did not choose to quote Dr. King as he did the Declaration of Independence.

And what if someone wanted to make an artistic statement quoting speeches by President Obama or Dr. King? Anyone who may be inspired to incorporate any of President Obama’s speech it into a musical or other creative work should not have any difficulty doing so. Section 105 of the Copyright Act states  “[c]opyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government.” Section 101 defines a “work of the United States Government” as “ a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties.”  Certainly, the President is an officer of the United States Government. And while the  Constitution doesn’t require the President to deliver an inaugural address (unlike the State of the Union address), every President since Washington has done so.

However, many would be surprised that Dr. King’s very publicly delivered “I Have a Dream” speech is protected by copyright and has been registered in the U.S. Copyright Office. And while Dr. King, like President Obama, was a public figure who delivered many noteworthy speeches, he was not a government officer or employee. As with every other private citizen, Dr. King (or his estate) was entitled to obtain copyright protection for the fruits of his creative labors.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the President chose not to quote Dr. King because of copyright considerations.  A small quotation, along the lines of what Mr. Obama used from the Declaration of Independence would undoubtedly have constituted fair use.  But it would be a different matter altogether if someone wanted to incorporate Dr. King’s speech in musical composition or other artistic work.

And while quoting from most government documents probably won’t make for great artistic achievement (although John Adams did try with “Doctor Atomic”), some Presidential utterances are worth remembering.   So, feel free to liberally quote President Obama’s inaugural address – or those of Presidents Reagan or either Bush if you’re so politically inclined (although you may still need to get permission for any audio or video recordings of them), but be careful  when dealing with the public speeches of private citizens.  If you want to use portions of the “I Have a Dream” speech or any of Dr. King’s other well-known (and copyrighted) works, in your own creative endeavors you will probably need to obtain permission – a topic I’ve previously written about.

Why My Friend Is Wrong on Gun Control

The tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut has re-energized the debate on our nation’s gun policy. Most commentators in the media and the blogosphere have called for tighter gun laws. My friend Ron, who’s written a scholarly article on the Second Amendment, takes a contrary view. Ron is no gun nut. Since our law school days he’s been one of my best friends – despite our having very different political views – and is a thoughtful, intelligent guy. He owns several firearms which he keeps under lock and key. I do not own a gun but I have been target shooting with Ron and thoroughly enjoyed the experience – and would happily do it again.

Ron’s brief article against tightening our gun laws I believe, sets up a straw man and then, not surprisingly knocks it down.  Few people are calling for an outright ban on guns or the right of individuals to own them. Ron cites recent Supreme Court precedent supporting the proposition that the Second Amendment provides such individual guarantees and I do not dispute his analysis of the jurisprudence.

However, as Senator Schumer pointed out on Face the Nation, no amendment, not even the First, is absolute. The Courts have routinely upheld reasonable “content-neutral” restrictions (e.g., you can’t post notices in certain places irrespective of what the message might be).  And I’m sure Ron will correct me if I’m wrong, but gun registration laws and waiting periods are constitutional under the Second Amendment.

But simply demonstrating an individual’s Constitutional right to guns is not the end of the discussion. Even assuming this right, I don’t think my good friend would advocate for an individual’s right to own chemical weapons, a nuclear warhead, a fighter jet, tank or anti-aircraft launchers. So, it appears that the government, under the Second Amendment, can restrict individuals from obtaining some arms within reason.

Only the biggest fear-mongers among the NRA leadership and their acolytes would suggest that any legislature is looking to take away firearms reasonably used for hunting or self-defense.  I submit that there’s no sport in hunting with an assault rifle.  Nor is there any need to have semi-automatic weapons to defend one’s self or home. After all, if you shoot an assailant once or twice he’s likely disabled. No need to shoot him a dozen times.

Similarly, I do not understand the deterrent effect of allowing individuals to carry concealed weapons. If a would-be criminal sees someone with a gun in a holster or a rifle slung off the shoulder, that potential ne’er-do-well won’t even draw his weapon, whereas he might draw and even fire in the presence of concealed weapons.  I suspect crime deterrence is why most police officers wear uniforms.

Ron does acknowledge that the mentally ill should not be allowed to buy firearms. But the shooter in the Sandy Hook slaughter didn’t buy the guns – his mother did. And, again, a restriction barring the mentally ill from buying guns would appear not to run afoul of the Second Amendment.

Nor is it an answer to say that the Newtown killings would not have been prevented with stronger gun laws. True, no law can prevent mentally deranged individuals from attacking. However, if Adam Lanza were only able to get his hands on a pistol or a hunting rifle, he might have only killed two first-graders, not twenty.  And if mega-clips were not salable to individuals, would-be mass murderers would have to re-load more often, allowing people to either subdue the shooter (as has happened) or escape.  We can’t prevent a madman’s carnage, but we can certainly minimize it.

Ron cites a study that states which allow citizens to carry guns have lower crime rates. I’d counter with surveys from other industrialized nations, such as Japan, England, Canada and Germany. Firearms are not nearly as available there and the incidents of gun violence, not surprisingly, are a fraction of what we have here in the States.

Ron concludes that “[t]he Founders of America saw fit to place firearms in a highly exalted position in our framework of individual liberties.” True. Many of them also owned slaves.  Our Constitution is the highest law in the land but it is not sacred text. It’s been amended 27 times and we fought a Civil War over it.  Back in the Founders’ day, people could be property and women couldn’t vote.  The Constitution’s built-in amendment process demonstrates that the Founders of America recognized even rights enshrined in the Constitution be changed over time – although not easily.

So, what would I propose? Close the loopholes that allow people to avoid background checks at gun shows and other individual sales.  Reinstate the assault weapons ban for individual use.  Enact strict civil liability laws and amend the felony murder statutes to impose severe fines and imprisonment for people who allow access to guns where they are not registered to such individuals. That will create powerful incentives to have individuals keep their guns under lock and key – as my friend Ron does – so that the registered owner’s kids, friends and neighbors do not have access to them.  Yes, Ron, I’ll grant you there is an individual right to bear arms. But it must be balanced with the right to freedom from harm.

The Chess Game of Fact Checkers As Applied To Music

“You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”

– Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

For the past several election cycles, a cottage industry of fact-checkers emerges from their pumpkin patches each fall to assess the credibility of candidates’ claims.  One of most-quoted of these, FactCheck.org, is affiliated with my alma mater.  These groups’ findings are not only cited by the media but are also used by partisans of both Presidential candidates.  And while neither the press nor the candidates are free to plagiarize the articles produced by fact-checkers, the facts themselves are fair game.

In fact (sorry), it seems fact-checkers have themselves become the story. Yesterday, CBS Sunday Morning dedicated an entire segment to the role of fact checkers.  It seems these trufflers of truth have become pawns in the political chess game of electoral politics, with each campaign’s spinmeisters trying to use the checkers to “king” their candidate by persuading the voters that their opinions are facts.  In keeping with the non-partisan nature of my posts, I’ll not comment on which candidate appears to have racked up the most misdemeanors from the fact checkers – but I do have my own opinion!

As it turns out, the late Senator Moynihan is absolutely right from a copyright perspective. Section 102 of the Copyright Act not only states what is subject to copyright, including various forms of musical works and sound recordings, but also sets out many things that are not subject to copyright protection. For example, there is no copyright protection available for any “idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.” And while the statute’s list doesn’t explicitly include facts, the FAQ on the Copyright Office’s web site does state that “[c]opyright does not protect facts…” More importantly, the Supreme Court has said that facts are not copyrightable.

Facts are either ideas or concepts (e.g., 1+1=2) or discoveries (e.g., it’s a fact that the earth revolves around the sun).  So, the candidates and their minions, along with the media and everyone else can freely use the findings of fact-checkers as to what a particular candidate said or didn’t say and whether his proposals are better than the other guy’s.  As I said in my last post, as with fair use, the exclusion of facts, concepts, discoveries and ideas  — as opposed to the individual expression of them, reinforces our First Amendment freedom of speech as nobody can monopolize an idea.

These concepts apply not only to political discourse, but to musical expression, as well.  Section 102 states that copyright applies to “original works of authorship.” It is the individual expression of an idea or concept, not the concept itself, that is subject to copyright protection. So, what does this mean in a musical context? Imagine if C.P.E. Bach had been able to get a copyright in sonata form. Or if Bach and Vivaldi had sued each other over the exclusive right to use a circle of fifths?

It would be absurd to think that Jerome Kern couldn’t use that chord progression  in “All The Things You Are.”  Structural forms (such as a 32-bar AABA song or a 12-bar blues) and chord progressions are among the things that are generally considered to be non-copyrightable concepts or ideas.  One would probably be justified in having the opinion that they’re musical “facts.” Just think of the all the songs and standards written on “blues” or “rhythm” changes.  Or consider the thousands of symphonies, concertos and sonatas that use sonata form. Steve Reich has copyrights in his works,  “Piano Phase” and “Violin Phase” but he can’t prevent another composer from utilizing phasing techniques in their own works. The same principle would apply to performance techniques: there’s no copyright for wind players playing double stops or practicing circular breathing.

So, feel free to marshal as many facts as you can to support your opinion as to which candidate “won” tonight’s final Presidential debate.  Or write and perform a new work on the topic using whatever forms and techniques you like. I only ask that you not post any politically-oriented comments in response to this piece. That said, your opinions as to copyright and music are most welcome.

Why The Obama Big Bird Ad’s Going Bye-Bye

Since last week’s Presidential debate, Big Bird’s eight-foot high profile has grown even larger.  It started with a comment that Republican contender, Gov. Mitt Romney, made to the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS , about cutting federal funding for PBS programs, including Lehrer’s own NewsHour and Sesame Street. Mr. Romney specifically singled out Big Bird for the budget ax.  Thereafter, Big Bird, who claims he’s normally in bed well before 11:30 p.m., made a guest appearance on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update to address the issue.  Being non-partisan, however, Mr. Bird declined to make any political pronouncements, stating, “No, I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

Unfortunately, he’s managed to do so, courtesy of a TV ad from President Obama’s campaign.  Prominently featuring Big Bird and the familiar green Sesame Street  sign, the ad has a satiric quality to it that one doesn’t typically see in Presidential campaign ads. It seemed, at least to me, more like one of the fake ads produced by Saturday Night Live. But it’s real and Sesame Workshop, the company that owns the rights to Sesame Street and its many characters, made it known that they are not amused.

Sesame Workshop’s demand that the Obama campaign cease using the Big Bird ad has been widely publicized.  But you might well ask, “doesn’t the President’s campaign have a First Amendment right to use Big Bird?” After all, “political speech” is the very core of our right to free speech.  And wouldn’t the use of Big Bird constitute “fair use” under copyright law? Wouldn’t it be considered a protected “parody”?

Well, probably not. Let’s first look at “fair use,” something that’s often misunderstood. Much ink has been spilled in recent years over so-called “fair use rights.” Actually, “fair use,” which is codified in Section 107 of the Copyright Act, is a defense to copyright infringement – not a “right.” And one of the purposes of “fair use” is to balance first amendment speech rights with copyright law’s limited monopoly.  Section 107 does state that use of a work may be “fair use” when used “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research….” Moreover, the courts have repeatedly held that there are no black line rules for determining fair use and that each decision is to be made on a case-by-case basis through an analysis of Section 107’s four factors. These include the “the purpose and character of the use”, such as whether it’s a “commercial use” and how much of the underlying work is used in the allegedly infringing work.  More recent cases also look to see if the use is “transformative,” meaning that the underlying work is not merely reproduced but is used in a new way.

One thing’s clear: just because it’s a political ad doesn’t mean you can use someone else’s copyrighted work.  The First Amendment guarantees free speech, but it doesn’t give you the right to freely use someone else’s speech.  A few years ago, Joe Walsh of The Eagles sued Joe Walsh the Congressional candidate over the use of one of his songs in a TV ad.  Many composers won’t allow their works to be used for political purposes. For example, Aaron Copland’s estate won’t allow the use of the iconic “Fanfare for the Common Man” to be used in political campaigns. A few years ago, when I was at Boosey & Hawkes, I was able to slap Comedy Central on the wrist for an unauthorized use of the Copland anthem on The Daily Show that was discovered by my staff. The result: a hefty license fee and some tickets to a taping of the show.

So what about the Big Bird ad? The use of the clip of Gov. Romney from the Presidential debate is likely  a fair use. It’s a short clip of a public, newsworthy event and the ad is commenting on Gov. Romney’s views and criticizing them.  With respect to Big Bird, it’s a bit more tricky.  He’s not the subject of the criticism, but his name and likeness is being used to criticize Gov. Romney’s statements.  And there’s an awful lot of Big Bird in the ad.

But, isn’t it a “transformative” use? After all, parody is one of the uses that may be considered transformative.  But, sometimes a parody is not a parody in the legal sense. The 1994 Supreme Court case of Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. (involving 2 Live Crew’s unauthorized use the Roy Orbison hit, “Oh, Pretty Woman” in one of its songs) and many subsequent cases, hold that a new work is a protected parody under copyright law only when it is commenting on, i.e., parodying, the underlying original work.  In the 2 Live Crew case, the Supreme Court found that the rap group’s song did, in fact, comment upon the Orbison hit.  In the Obama ad, it appears that the parody is directed not at Big Bird (the underlying copyrighted work), but at Gov. Romney. That would tend to defeat the parody defense. For example, it’s not a legally protected “parody” if you take a popular song and merely change the lyrics to comment on some topical issues of the day as opposed to scorning the song itself. But what about Weird Al Yankovic? Actually, Weird Al gets permission from the copyright owners of the songs he “parodies.”  And, as the Supreme Court noted in the 2 Live Crew case, the parody doesn’t have to be either good or funny.

So, it’s murky at best under copyright law as to whether the Obama campaign can use Big Bird in its ad without permission.  But it doesn’t end there. Remember the “Sesame Street” street sign? Sesame Workshop has a trademark in that famous logo.  Not surprisingly, there’s a “fair use” provision in the federal trademark act (that’s Section 33(b)(4) of the Lanham Act for you footnote freaks) and the courts construing it typically consider three factors, including whether the use of the mark suggests sponsorship or endorsement by the owner of the trademark.  Under that test, it looks like Sesame Workshop has a legitimate gripe about the use of its trademark “endorsing” the President’s position.

And remember, I mentioned the use of Big Bird’s “name and likeness.” That’s typically an area of law known as the right of publicity, which allows celebrities, often very dead ones, to make lots of money off of their name and likeness and to prevent others from cashing in without their consent.  However, unlike copyright and trademark, the right of publicity is a matter of state law, not federal law, and every state’s law is different. And while I know of cases where actors portraying fictional characters have successfully made publicity claims (e.g., George Wendt and John Ratzenberger suing over a “Norm” and “Cliff” robot impersonators), I’m not aware of any right of publicity cases involving characters such as the likes of Big Bird, Mickey Mouse or Spiderman.

So, the Big Bird ad, on intellectual property law grounds, is likely to fly the coop. However, that’s not why it’s going bye-bye. While I’m sure the lawyers working for the Obama campaign know that they’re not on solid ground, the Sesame Workshop folks aren’t likely to file a lawsuit. For one, Sesame Workshop’s gotten a lot of favorable free publicity.  But more importantly, the Big Bird brouhaha has a shelf life that will last only until the October 11 Vice Presidential debate and I suspect both sides know this and don’t want to spend a lot of money fighting over something so ephemeral.  Even if there weren’t any legal issues, I’d be very surprised if the Big Bird ad continues to air after this week, by which time it’ll be as fresh as last week’s leftover chicken.

Was Steve Jobs Good or Bad for the Mus(ic)?

Last week, I was observing Yom Kippur, along with other members of The Tribe. It’s a time when we not only atone for our sins, but also reflect upon the past year, especially remembering those who’ve left us during that time. Growing up, it was not uncommon to ask if some prominent world leader or captain of industry was good or bad for the Jews. Often, it was a mixed answer. Having contemplated the passing of Steve Jobs on an empty stomach, I have similar mixed feelings about his legacy on the music front while fully appreciating the visionary he was in creating and marketing technology that’s changed our lives.

Let me explain. Try to remember a time before there was iTunes. It was truly the darkest of the dark ages for the music business, especially the recording industry.  There was this relatively new format, MP3, that allowed music files to be compressed so that they could easily and quickly be distributed over the internet. And then there was this thing called Napster that allowed millions of people to download millions of copyrighted musical tracks of their favorite artists – for free! And then there were its progeny like Grokster, Gnutella and Kazaa spreading the gospel of free music.

The labels justifiably cried foul because this “sharing” was really stealing despite the sophistry of Google shills such as Larry Lessig and his ilk. But the labels largely had themselves to blame.  Why? Well, Napster, Grokster, SterSter (ok, I made that one up) and all the others wouldn’t have gained so much traction if the labels had actually listened to their customers who were demanding the availability of their music in this new format. Instead, what did they do? They dragged their feet, locked up the content with “digital rights management” tools or DRM and formed alliances that distributed only some, but not all of the major label’s content and largely locked out the indies. With no really good legitimate download service to cater to this market, the pirates naturally stepped in. The labels spent the next several years wringing their hands, suing their customers and clinging to these label-owned download services, the names of which I don’t even remember anymore.

Enter Steve Jobs. He created this thing called the iPod. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. Anyway, Apple’s goal wasn’t to sell music but to sell lots and lots of iPods – which they did. But they needed the music to be legitimately available for people to put on their iPods. So he created iTunes. Yes, it took someone outside of the record industry to finally create a viable, legitimate download service and to get the labels  on board. And while some naysayers in the industry said you couldn’t compete with free, others of us who drink bottled water (I suspect Steve Jobs did, too) maintained you can compete with free based upon quality and service. And he was right. And, at least some people started paying for music again. And it was good.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, nothing that time and a little market evolution can’t fix. Remember, Jobs’ goal was to sell iPods, not music. So he priced the downloads cheaply and at a one-size-fits-all price point of 99 cents. And as someone who has been – and soon will be again – a music publisher, he created a pass-through so that iTunes only got permission from the labels. The music publishers who represent the songs that are recorded by the labels and the songwriters who create them didn’t get paid by iTunes but had to rely on the labels to account for their share. OK, the music publishers were a little groggy when this was going down and didn’t protect their turf as well as they could have. Why is this bad? Well, record labels have occasionally been known to employ some creative accounting practices when it comes to paying artists and publishers. But these things can and will be addressed and fixed.

The larger issue is a cultural one. Awhile back a colleague of mine and I were musing about the business over single malt scotch. He’s a few years older than me and told of how appliance stores used to throw in a free box of Tide (remember powdered laundry detergent?) with every washer. Like Steve Jobs, all the appliance store cared about was selling the hardware. My friend said that music has become like the box of Tide. Not an article of value in and of itself, but merely the ancillary content to be run on the hardware. While it’s great that people are paying for this “content”, treating music as a fungible commodity ultimately devalues it and the craft and artistry of those that create it. That’s why I feel Steve Jobs’ legacy in the music business is mostly – but not completely – a positive one. At least not yet.

Whack-a-Mole Reigns Supreme

Dear Readers:

Welcome to my blog. I figure since I’ve got one now, I’d better put something up while ruminating on what to post next. So, below is an article I originally wrote back in June when the Viacom v. YouTube decision originally came down.

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In June, Louis L. Stanton, the federal judge hearing a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Viacom and other “content owners” against YouTube, issued a 30-page opinion in YouTube’s favor.  This decision will affect anyone who makes a living by creating or marketing any kind original, creative work, like TV shows, movies and music.

More than two years and many millions of legal fees ago, Viacom, along with Paramount, BET, the English Premier (soccer) league and some music publishers, sued YouTube and Google, which had paid more than $1.6 billion for YouTube and the privilege of being sued.

Unless you’ve been living in one of the few caves without broadband for the past few years, you know that YouTube is the repository of millions of videos of varying degrees of quality, put up there by ordinary folks like you and me.  And many of the more popular videos are excerpts of TV shows like “The Daily Show” or are amateur videos that include music from their favorite bands.    Sounds like a clear case of copyright infringement, right?  Well, that’s where a fairly arcane section of the Copyright Act comes in.  Section 512(c) provides the YouTubes of the world with a “safe harbor” against copyright infringement claims if they follow certain procedures.

And what are these procedures?  Basically, an entity such as YouTube that has “information residing on systems or networks at the direction of users” has to have a “designated agent”, like an e-mail address where copyright owners can send a notice that the site has posted infringing material.  If the site promptly takes down infringing material after receiving a notice of infringement in accordance with the statute, then it won’t be liable for copyright infringement.

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