Copyright panel @ AADL, featuring Gilberto Gil

As a part of Ann Arbor Summer Fest, the Ann Arbor District Library hosted A Panel Discussion on Digital Culture and Internet Rights. The headliner, if panels can be said have headliners, was Gilberto Gil, Brazilian Minister of Culture, superstar musician, and Creative Commons evangelist extraordinaire.

Gilberto Gil with Guitar, photo by Joi Ito

The other panelists were local luminaries in the areas of music and copyright: Mark Clague, Associate Director of the UM School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s American Music Institute; Jessica Litman, expert on copyright law, author of Digital Copyright (2001), and Professor of Law at the UM Law School; and Christopher M. Taylor, a shareholder practicing in Butzel Long’s Ann Arbor office in the areas of media law, intellectual property, technology and e-commerce. The moderator was W. Kim Heron, editor of the Metro Times and former radio dj.

I thought it was terrific that this panel was held at the public library. The location was a completely appropriate place to talk about improving public access to culture by bending copyright to suit the needs of the people. It was especially valuable for me because I am so accustomed to discussing these issues in the context of scholarship and academia. While the scholarly publishing crisis did come up, and there were two academics on the panel, overall the evening emphasized popular culture and public access.

I’ve struggled to capture all the great conversation that happened that night, both among the panelists and with the audience, but here are a few key themes.
Copyrights in the hands of big media are very different from copyrights in the hands of creators
As Jessica Litman put it, “Even though copyright vests automatically in authors, we’ve made it really easy to sign away your rights, and really hard to get them back.” When Gil was first starting out in music fifty(!) years ago, he had to sign away all his rights to his record label. 35 years later, when he tried to get those rights back, it took seven years and a lawsuit, and the record company still owns the physical copies of the original recording. When Warner controlled all the copyrights, the songs were only available for sale, and if a recording was out of print, there was nothing Gil or anyone else could do about it. Now that he controls his own rights, Gil has released everything under a Creative Commons license that allows remixing, and his songs can become part of the larger musical discourse.

Part of the problem, to quote Jessica Litman again, is that “Copyright law was designed to make sure that you need a copyright lawyer.” These days everyone is a copyright holder, but in order to leverage that power, you have to understand the law, and the law is nearly impossible for ordinary people to understand. This gives big corporations with armies of lawyers an immense advantage over artists, most of whom have never heard of Creative Commons and don’t understand how much they’re giving up when they sign away their copyrights.

Culture should belong to the people
According to Litman, copyright traditionally concentrated control in a few hands, the hands of the publishers, record companies and movie studios, in a way that disempowered the original creators. It made economic sense when you needed printing presses and recording studios, but not any more.

Mark Clague made the point that we tend to think of the production of culture as separate from societal structures like law. But law has a huge influence on culture, and in the case of copyright law, it profoundly shapes how culture is produced, shared, and adapted. The idea behind Creative Commons is that cultural products, the goods produced by culture, should be available to the people of that culture, to the society that produced it. Intellectual property and copyright laws tend to block or interfere with that availability. CC licenses give authors the authority to establish permissible uses in a way that democratizes culture.

Gil spoke about the background of Creative Commons in Brazil. Lawrence Lessig worked with law professors in Brazil to adapt the licenses to Brazil, and the professors promoted the new licenses and started a movement. Gil joined them, both as a musician and as the Minister of Culture. He said that the value of Creative Commons in Brazil was that it “empowers people, the community, street people, to produce their own culture and promote their own culture and sell their own culture.”

“The technology is anarchistic at its core”
Gil had a terrific riff about the fundamental nature of technology. With computers and the internet, copies are exact, and they are inevitable. Protecting against copies is impossible. The technologies are attacking and destroying protection; they can’t help it. Copy! It’s what they do. The technologies themselves are anarchistic. “Some years ago a copy would be recognized as a copy so it wouldn’t have the same value as the original, but in the digital world the copy is the same as the original.” Protection is almost impossible, but the compensation can happen in new ways. Content producers should be focusing on compensation, not protection. Experiments with advertising, collecting societies, and investors will lead to new models for compensating artists for their work, long after everyone realizes that DRM is futile.

A number of questions from the audience centered around protecting creators from pirates, and it was very frustrating, both for me and the panelists. Over and over, the panel pointed out that trying to control copies doesn’t work, and that if people are given convenient ways to buy movies and music legally, many will do so. Big Media has focused so much energy on protection, and hasn’t put nearly enough into developing new strategies that embrace the web, and that’s their problem. Plenty of independent artists have found ways to build a fan base and make a living using the internet, and free copies are part of their business model.


Gilberto Gil is on a big tour at the moment. If you’d like to hear him speak about a variety of subjects, including his life, music, politics, and Creative Commons, Amy Goodman did an hour-long interview with him last week.