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Monday, November 29, 2004 - Page updated at 11:58 A.M.
Music lovers invited to mash
By Dawn C. Chmielewski
Now the Beastie Boys, David Byrne and other artists have issued "The Wired CD," a compilation of new music that invites listeners to "Rip. Sample. Mash. Share." That's the kind of musical experimentation that could get you slapped with a lawsuit.
But have no fear of hearing the heavy tread of entertainment attorneys at your door. The CD, distributed with the November issue of Wired magazine, is the first to be issued under a new type of license. Called the Creative Commons, it is the brainchild of Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig.
The artists on the disc have agreed to give music lovers the freedom to transfer the songs to their computers, distribute them over Internet file-swapping networks like Kazaa, and even sample the rhythms and hooks to create their own compositions. The only thing you can't do is use them in commercials or, for a handful of instances, in a song you plan to release.
It's the boldest experiment yet in trying to catalyze support for copyrights compatible with the digital reality of the 21st century.
"The Wired CD" is attracting notice, in part, because the magazine won support from some of the best-known names in contemporary music.
Former Talking Heads lead singer Byrne, who contributed a track called "My Fair Lady" to the disc, said Internet file-sharing networks are akin to cultural libraries, repositories for the world's music.
"When you take away that stuff and say, 'No, we own this. You can't have it unless you're ready to pay for it' ... it basically cuts the whole culture off at the knees," said Byrne in an interview.
Said former Public Enemy bass player Brian Hardgroove: "We are looking at opening up floodgates. We're talking about letting people get creative and getting lawyers out of the way from slowing things down." Hardgroove, co-founder of Fine Arts Militia, collaborated with Chuck D on a song for "The Wired CD."
Listeners have been quick to embrace their new license, posting songs from "The Wired CD" on file-swapping networks like LimeWire.
San Francisco-based Wired is using its influence and distribution network to advance Creative Commons beyond the arcane world of intellectual property rights and into the mainstream. About 750,000 copies of the CD headed to newsstands and mailboxes across the country.
Goetz approached nearly 50 artists and their managers directly with the idea for publishing music under a Creative Commons license. He was asking a lot. Wired wanted an exclusive, original song to ensure a successful CD worthy of other musical concept albums, such as Radiohead's "OK Computer." And he wanted the artists, their managers and their labels to agree to rules that would allow their song to be freely distributed and potentially sampled in a composition they might not like.
Some artists, notably Byrne and former Replacements singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg, embraced the concept immediately. Others, including the musically experimental Moby, declined. No hard feelings, said Goetz.
"These people make their livelihood through their music. They had to want to sacrifice that," said Goetz. "In order to take part, there was a leap of faith we were asking people to take."
The Creative Commons disc comes at a time when the music industry has attempted to use copyright as a cudgel to beat down unlicensed Internet file swapping.
The industry spent millions of dollars combating Napster and its technological progeny, Grokster, Morpheus and Kazaa. And when that didn't work, the Recording Industry Association of America turned to lobbying Congress and filing thousands of copyright lawsuits against individual file-sharers. Yet the number of people going online to illegally download music continues to grow.
Acknowledging technological reality, some in the industry have been moving toward a compromise. The world's largest record label, Sony BMG Music, is trying to strike a licensing deal with some file-swapping networks.
The nonprofit Creative Commons project has been working since 2001 to develop a middle ground in which artists retain some rights while giving other rights away.
"It allows you to disaggregate the rights in copyright," said Neeru Paharia, Creative Commons' assistant director. "Say I want to keep all my commercial rights, but I don't care what people do with this noncommercially. You can pick and choose from the attributes we offer."
Thirteen of the artists on the Wired CD agreed to a "sampling plus" license. That lets anyone take snippets of sound and transform it into their own commercial work and copy and redistribute the song on Internet file-sharing networks, so long as it's not for profit.
The Beastie Boys, Chuck D and My Morning Jacket chose another flavor of the Creative Commons license, the "Non-Commercial Sampling Plus" license. It restricts derivative compositions to noncommercial applications, say, in the classroom or for personal use.
The songs still are protected under copyright law. And the artists on "The Wired CD" could seek legal action, should someone abuse the Creative Commons licensing rules.
"The broader goal of Creative Commons is to make it easy for people to build upon and share content with each other," said Paharia.
Fine Arts Militia's Hardgroove said the Creative Commons license allows artists to authorize the use of audio samples up front. It restores creative control to the artists and keeps lawyers at bay. Other musicians view the Creative Commons rules as providing a way for the industry to embrace file-sharing.
Byrne used the analogy of public libraries to make a point about the music industry's reaction to file-sharing networks.
"You could imagine that book publishers got all up in arms when the Andrew Carnegies and all these other philanthropists decided to fund public libraries in all these towns across the United States," said Byrne. "'Wait a minute! They're not paying for our books! They want to read them for free. This is bad for business.' You basically would have an illiterate, uneducated country."
Mitch Bainwol, chairman and chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, acknowledged he isn't all that familiar with the Creative Commons licenses. But he said the experiment is consistent with what the industry has been fighting for all along: artist control.
"As long as it's choice," said Bainwol. "We object to people taking without an artist making a choice."
EMI Recorded Music spokeswoman Jeanne Meyer expressed skepticism about the Creative Commons license. She acknowledged Creative Commons makes it easier for the exchange of music, but contends it is susceptible to misuse and not practical for commercial works.
"In the case of 'The Wired CD,' " Meyer said via e-mail, "the Beastie Boys' musical contribution is fully copyrighted, and its inclusion was authorized by Beastie Boys on a one-time basis and solely for noncommercial use."
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