In NYT Op-Ed, Bono Worries on the Destruction of Creativity (Never Mind That Whole Negativland Thing)
Bono penned an Op-Ed for the New York Times yesterday morning listing his "Ten for the Next Ten," and one of his ten predictions concerns the future of creativity. Specifically, in a section called "Intellectual Property Developers," Bono warned of the catastrophe facing the TV and movie business -- and the developers of intellectual property, presumably the writers and directors -- if the government doesn't do something to protect copyrighted works. His solution is to monitor transactions at the internet service provider level. Writes Bono:
A decade's worth of music file-sharing and swiping has made clear that the people it hurts are the creators -- in this case, the young, fledgling songwriters who can't live off ticket and T-shirt sales like the least sympathetic among us -- and the people this reverse Robin Hooding benefits are rich service providers, whose swollen profits perfectly mirror the lost receipts of the music business.
We're the post office, they tell us; who knows what's in the brown-paper packages? But we know from America's noble effort to stop child pornography, not to mention China's ignoble effort to suppress online dissent, that it's perfectly possible to track content. Perhaps movie moguls will succeed where musicians and their moguls have failed so far, and rally America to defend the most creative economy in the world, where music, film, TV and video games help to account for nearly 4 percent of gross domestic product. Note to self: Don't get over-rewarded rock stars on this bully pulpit, or famous actors; find the next Cole Porter, if he/she hasn't already left to write jingles.
Our favorite bullshit detector Cory Doctorow offered his analysis via a few choice tweets in response.
Bono's concern for "swollen profits" is funny considering that his record label, Universal, thrived on the swollen profits of U2's compact disc recordings during the CD era, and it was those bloated profits that, in part, made him a multi-millionaire. But he's just reinforcing a sermon that his band's manager, Paul McGuinness, has been preaching for the past few years: that the real crooks in the whole music biz mess aren't the fans, but the Internet service providers that profit off of unlimited access to free music. Now that the conduit is no longer his business partner Universal Music but internet service providers, it's only fair that the swollen profits lost from Universal be re-channeled into U2's pocket, regardless of where they're now coming from.
McGuinness offered his opinion on ISPs a few years ago at the Midem conference in Cannes: "Network operators, in particular, have for too long had a free ride on music -- on our clients' content. It's time for a new approach -- time for ISPs to start taking responsibility for the content they've profited from for years. And it's time for some visionary new thinking about how the music and technology sectors can work as partners instead of adversaries, leading to a revival of recorded music instead of its destruction."
It's instructive to view Bono and McGuinness's opinions on "the destruction of recorded music" through the lens of U2's early dealings with copyright law. In 1991, the band shot a lawsuit regarding fair use of its intellectual property (we prefer the term "music," but Bono likes the legalese) at "young, fledgling" San Francisco-based noise artists Negativland when the latter issued a single called "U2" on "young, fledgling" LA indie SST Records. In what would become a precedent-setting moment regarding fair use and music copyright protection, U2's label, Island Records, and its publisher, Warner Chappell Music, sued Negativland for using, without permission, big chunks of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." Negativland had mixed the song's melody into a collage of found sound, including expletive-laden outtakes from Casey Kasem's "American Top 40" radio show. (Listen above and below.)
U2 manager McGuinness explained the band's overall strategy on protecting their work a few years ago (long after the Negativland thing was resolved): "We were never interested in joining that long, humiliating list of miserable artists who made lousy deals, got exploited and ended up broke and with no control over how their life's work was used, and no say in how their names and likenesses were bought and sold."
Which is understandable. No one wants to be taken advantage of. And you have to credit U2 with consistency: they set a precedent back then, and continue to hold their music on very tight reins. But once you reach a certain level of success, the prism shifts a little, and either you side with The Man or you side with the artists like Negativland, Andy Warhol, Shepard Fairey and more who are interested in, how to put it, "fucking with The Man," even if said Man happens to be a well-respected lead singer and peace activist.
Ultimately, the label, publisher and U2 "won" the Negativland/SST debacle: fearing expensive litigation, SST and Negativland were forced to recall all copies of the vinyl and cassette -- what they could of them, anyway -- and turn them over to Universal/Warner Chappell to destroy. It cost SST Records and Negativland thousands of dollars. In the process, U2 smeared the line between fair use (i.e. artistic license) and commercial use, and a generation of hip hop producers shuddered. What Negativland had created was a piece of sound art; there was no way to mistake the sound on that record to anything resembling a U2 anthem. It's a collage (and a funny, biting one, at that) in the same way that Shepard Fairey's work is reappropriation.
The ultimate, and costly, irony is at the top of this post. Well, hell, just for fun, let's toss it in again:
U2/Universal/Warner Chappell's win over Negativland was a Pyrrhic victory. Here is the song, one click away, for you to hear.
Just to put all this in perspective.