Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Hoarding, Archiving, and the Public Domain: Universal Vault Edition

The New York Times Magazine just dropped a piece on the complete destruction of every master recording in Universal's West Coast vault. I haven't even finished reading it, because it's so terrible I have to digest it in installments and take breaks. Hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable master tapes were destroyed.

There were recordings from dozens of record companies that had been absorbed by Universal over the years, including several of the most important labels of all time. The vault housed tape masters for Decca, the pop, jazz and classical powerhouse; it housed master tapes for the storied blues label Chess; it housed masters for Impulse, the groundbreaking jazz label. The vault held masters for the MCA, ABC, A&M, Geffen and Interscope labels. And it held masters for a host of smaller subsidiary labels. Nearly all of these masters — in some cases, the complete discographies of entire record labels — were wiped out in the fire.

There are no more original recordings by Buddy Holly. They were all in the vault. The core of Chuck Berry's musical achievement burned. Decades of seminal work by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday ... that's just the beginning of the list. Read it for yourself, but maybe only a few paragraphs at a time. It's hard to take.

It's a major loss to the history of human culture. And the company had kept it hushed up. I applaud the Times on their investigative work.

Oh, by the way, there were unreleased session masters in there, too. Lots of them.

And here's the thing: those recordings were part of our shared heritage. On one level, that musical history belonged to all of us. But on a legal and financial level, they belonged to Universal Music Group, who kept them in part of a warehouse they rented from former sibling company Universal Studios, who let them incinerate.

But a lot of the music in those recordings only belonged to UMG in the 21st century because copyright laws had been repeatedly changed. Everything in that vault recorded before 1952 would have been public domain before the fire hit, based on the laws in place when the music was actually recorded.

Would that have changed anything? I don't know. We're talking about one-of-a-kind physical artifacts, which would have retained some of their value even after the music in them became public property. In fact, they might have had much more value, as unique assets that allowed UMG key advantages over their competitors. And maybe that would have changed the incentives.

The incentives of nearly-interminable copyrights, which are allegedly designed to protect our artistic heritage, often align to damage or destroy it.

Let's start with the fact that a lot of that music, including lots of unreleased music, was just sitting in that vault. Why hadn't UMG released it? Because they didn't have to. No one else could. The law gave them exclusive rights to those recordings, so they had no competitors. UMG could just keep all that music in the back, like the crate with the Lost Ark.

We think of copyright as the right to publish something, but it is more accurately described as the right to keep work from being published. Exclusive rights to publish means that you can keep other people from publishing it. That's what copyright is on a practical level: the right to get the court to stop someone else from selling something. But if you have exclusive rights, you also have the right NOT to release something. No one can make you sell your property, right?

What that leads to, when you have copyright terms lasting an unprecedented 95 years, is big music companies (and film companies, and book publishers, and, and, and) ending up owning a lot of old things that no longer have huge commercial appeal and that don't seem worth reissuing. But on the other hand, all those things collectively are the company's property, and there may be a way to make money on them someday, so there's no reason to let anyone else have them, ever. 95-year copyright means a lot of things get kept in the back room by private owners who don't really want them and don't want to let them go.

This is how priceless cultural artifacts end up in a hoard when they should be in an archive. God forbid massive corporations give, or even lend, their libraries of priceless master tapes to libraries or museums that would protect them. Because, you see, that would let other people have access to that art.

And the incentives change when your copyright protections run out. When you know that every other record company is about to release their own copies of Billie Holliday's Stay with Me, you have an incentive to reissue it yourself. And more, importantly, to remaster it with improved sound quality, exploiting those original master tapes. Maybe even to throw in some previously unreleased material. But if there's no competition, you don't get around to it.

"But wait, Doctor Cleveland," some of you will say, "doesn't the long term of copyright create an incentive for companies to protect all those old masters?" The answer, evidently, is no. Not enough. Our intellectual property regime didn't cause this fire. But it sure didn't help. And that's a damned shame.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Shakespeare Wasn't Perfect

So The Atlantic has seen fit to publish more "Shakespeare authorship" conspiracy-mongering, this time masquerading as feminism by proposing a female candidate. But the piece doesn't quote even a single line of the real poetry that woman wrote. It can't, of course, because that would give the game away. If the piece let you read Emilia Bassano Lanier's actual poetry it would become dangerously easy to hear that Lanier sounds like herself, not like Shakespeare. So the "feminist" conspiracy theory is dedicated to silencing the voice of an authentic woman poet. (Nobody said it was a good masquerade.)

The Atlantic piece rehashes the same old tired arguments that have been rebutted hundreds of times before. This isn't about real debate. But the biggest mistake is the assumption that Shakespeare is above criticism, and always has been. That has never been true. Shakespeare authorship conspiracies are outgrowths of an unhealthy hero-worship of Shakespeare, treating him as some infallible demigod.

Don't get me wrong. I think Shakespeare is terrific. I wouldn't spend my professional life teaching and writing about him if I didn't. But I also think he's great enough that we can admit his failings. Bardolatry, the idol-worship of Shakespeare, keeps you from understanding him.

So the Atlantic article begins by talking about how great Lady Macbeth is as a character (true enough), and rhapsodizes about how many other great female characters Shakespeare wrote. Then the first argument is basically that Shakespeare must have been a woman to write such great women. There's a little hedging, but that's the claim. Only a woman could write Lady Macbeth. If something seems wrong there, wait. One of the other examples is The Taming of the Shrew.

Yes. That Taming of the Shrew. Where the wife is, uh, a shrew. Who gets tamed. That Taming of the Shrew. Which apparently only a woman could have written.

And that, uh. Well. Kind of a surprise.

Or it would be if we were applying normal everyday logic to Shakespeare's works. To most casual observers, and a lot of professional ones too, The Taming of the Shrew looks sexist, what with Petruchio starving his wife into submission. (That is not my interpretation. That is what the text itself says. He doesn't allow her any food until she knuckles under.) But maybe it gets better if we look more closely? Say if we apply some English-major tools, like looking hard at all the metaphors Petruchio uses to describe Kate? Oops, sorry, no, he's always comparing her to domesticated animals. Whoops. Actually worse than it looks from a distance.

Now, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, there is a tradition of serious scholarship, much of it by feminist women, dedicated to saving the play from misogyny and discovering subtle anti-sexist messages inside it. We don't want Shakespeare to be a sexist pig, so we're going to work hard to get around any politics we don't agree with. I've read a lot of that criticism, and it's smart. But other feminist scholars disagree and say, Nope, sorry, all the stuff about dominating and subduing women means exactly what it says.

What's different is saying, No. The Taming of the Shrew is SO feminist that NO MAN COULD HAVE WRITTEN IT. And that, to borrow a phrase from psychoanalysis, is crazy talk.

Rather, it's a defense against cognitive dissonance, much like what we see with members of cults. The unpleasant truth has to be closed out. Our doomsday prophet isn't wrong! It's proof of how right he is! Shakespeare isn't a sexist with bad four-hundred-year-old politics! He's a feminist! In fact, he's the greatest feminist ever. He's such a great feminist that he could not actually be a man!

Whoo boy.

The Atlantic article's preferred ghost-writer, Emilia Lanier, also features in Shakespeare scholarship as a way to get past things that make modern readers uncomfortable. You see, her maiden name was Bassano (which is the name the Atlantic article uses, even though she didn't publish under it). And she had Italian heritage, and maybe-just-maybe Jewish heritage as well, so she got put forth forty years ago as a candidate for the Dark Lady of the sonnets. There's no reason to believe that. All we know is that the Dark Lady had dark hair and dark eyes, which doesn't narrow much down. We can't prove that Shakespeare and Lanier ever spoke with one another.

But, you see, if we can say the Dark Lady was a Venetian Jewess, then some things that make us uncomfortable about act four of The Merchant of Venice cease to be problems. See, Shakespeare can't be an anti-Semite! He had a Jewish mistress! (As if an anti-Semitic Gentile marrying his Jewish mistress were not part of the plot of The Merchant of Venice.)

As with Taming, there's a lively debate about whether Merchant is anti-Semitic or cleverly critiquing anti-Semitism. But having Emilia Bassano Lanier actually write The Merchant of Venice is three steps further into crazy land. If Merchant had actually been written by a Jew, that would be one seriously self-loathing Jew. It's a shonda, I tell you.

The problem here is that Shakespeare is treated as above reproach, so obvious complaints have to be explained away. No one is allowed to speak ill of the divine William. But Shakespeare was not a god. He was human, and flawed, and when we refuse to see the things that make us unhappy or uncomfortable we are refusing to read him. Better to take him as he is, flaws and all.

It isn't just the so-called anti-Stratfordians who do this. They merely express a mutant form of the excessive reverence that keeps many people from looking at Shakespeare honestly. It's not an accident that the authorship conspiracy theories don't start until 1850, when the Shakespeare cult had already taken full hold. Shakespeare got built up into a secular divinity, and then people looked at his all-too-human biography and decided it was uncomfortably ungodlike. So they looked for a better candidate. It's the literary-biographical equivalent of making up a divine ancestor for the founder of your tribe.

The author of the Atlantic piece, like many other conspiracy theorists, claims that the "doubts" began in Shakespeare's lifetime. She went on twitter to say so, and to complain that documents critical of Shakespeare had been suppressed by scholars. I mean, some of those documents get reprinted in collected editions of Shakespeare for students, and they were in my college textbooks, but I guess if you have to look in the back of the book that's a conspiracy or whatever.

The real point is that none of those critical comments about Shakespeare are disputing that he wrote the plays. They are saying that his plays suck. The conspiracy theorists claim that the plays are too wonderful for mere William Shakespeare from Warwick to write himself. But the critics they point to as "evidence" are actually saying that the plays are not good.

That seems unthinkable to us, but that's only because we've drunk the Kool-Aid. Not everybody liked Shakespeare during his lifetime. At least one person is on record liking Shakespeare as a human being but not liking his art, because he thought Shakespeare was a hack. Not that Shakespeare was too much of a hack to write Julius Caesar. He thought that Julius Caesar was hacktastic. No really.

Shakespeare also had fans and admirers, lots of them. But he had haters, especially at the beginning and the end of his career. At the end of his life, and for many decades afterward, he was considered an intellectual lightweight whose plays were not learned enough. Not that he wasn't learned enough to write the plays. That the plays themselves were not learned. Not sophisticated. Not intellectual. Pretty good, for an old guy, but no John Fletcher and no Ben Jonson.

This goes against everything our culture tells us about Shakespeare. But it's true. It's documented fact. For a lot of the 1600s the works of Shakespeare were not treated as lofty works of erudition. They were considered good, stupid, old-fashioned fun. A guilty pleasure.

That's not the way we look at those plays any more, but it isn't necessarily wrong. And it isn't crazy. Shakespeare's worth taking seriously, but he's not supposed to be a religion. If he's never fun you're doing it wrong.

cross-posted from Dagblog. Please post comments there, not here.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Should Our Allies Hack Our Elections?

Two things about the Mueller report are not up for debate: the Russians interfered in our last election, and no one is going to do anything about that. One party is hobbled by the need for bipartisanship, and the other so blinded by partisanship that they'll treat attempts to ward off foreign interference as political attacks on their own side. While we're making this about Trump, out foreign adversaries are preparing to attack our elections again. We haven't punished them or done anything to stop them, so why would they stop? All we've done is give them time to improve their methods.

But it won't just be the Russians. It will be other hostile intelligence services. The Chinese, certainly. The North Koreans. Maybe the Iranians, surely the Saudis. Everyone might as well try, since we've created no downside for them. They get a risk-free shot at influencing American policy against American interests, and if that fails they still get to weaken us. No matter what happens, we lose and they don't.

The question, if we're going to allow foreigners to hack our elections without doing anything about it except saying they shouldn't, is at what point even our allies have to join in. If your nation's most important ally is allowing hostile powers to interfere in its elections, and those hostile powers want to weaken your alliances and harm your national interests, at what point do you have a duty to try to sway American elections yourself? When does it get so bad that the French have no choice but to hack us?

Let me very clear: I am absolutely opposed to any foreign power meddling in our elections. I don't want the French or Germans or Canadians messing with this any more than I want the Russians and Saudis and North Koreans. Every foreign power should stay the hell out.

But if we don't stop outside meddlers, outsiders will meddle, and the number of meddlers will only grow.

When I am trying to think through something strategically, I try to imagine myself not as the other party, but as someone charged to give that other party the best advice possible. Instead of thinking about what I want, or what I hope or think or imagine the other side wants, I try to imagine what I would tell the other side to do if I were an adviser with a duty to lay out all the options. That gets me away from wishful thinking to strategic realities.

If I were a Canadian (or Frenchman or German) staffing Justin Trudeau or Emanuel Macron or Angela Merkel, I would have to put forward hacking the American elections as an option to consider, and I would have to make sure to offer the prime minister (etc.) a plan to do that effectively. No one counseling them can take that option off the table.

If you're Justin Trudeau, you're facing a real danger of your neighbor to your south crashing your economy, and his own, and Mexico's, for no particularly good reason. The President of the United States routinely threatens to shut borders and disrupt North America's integrated supply chains. That is hard to stomach on its own, because if Trump crashes the whole NAFTA trade bloc Trudeau's voters will be out of work and nothing else will get accomplished but dealing with economic catastrophe. But it's all especially hard to take when this danger actually comes from a foreign power. Should Trudeau let Russia do this to Canada? Would you let them? Or would you do what it took to protect your country?

Hacking our elections on the side of positive values and international commitments would be harder than just sowing chaos and tearing down responsible leaders, as the Russians have done. It has always been harder to build than to destroy, and it's almost impossible on Facebook. But on the other hand, our allies have a better sense of our culture than our enemies do. But if it comes to running psy ops against us, the Canadians have a built-in advantage. Who knows us better?

This will of course, be a disaster, and part of a larger disaster, as friendly and hostile countries play cloak and dagger to swing Rust Belt electoral votes. It's a nightmare. It's also probably inevitable.

The only way to stop it is to protect our country's elections, for real. And our political establishment isn't ready to do that.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here

Monday, April 15, 2019

Alas for Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe, one of the greatest of science-fiction writers, has passed away. His work was subtle and superb. Wolfe wrote paragraphs you could lose yourself in, like a labyrinth, and come out a changed person on the other side. He thought profoundly about what story-telling means as few other writers have. He was honored inside the genre and sometimes outside it, but deserved far more honor in both places. Any account of 20th-century American literature that omits Gene Wolfe is incomplete.

There are many places to start reading Wolfe: his novella "The Fifth Head of Cerberus," and his epic masterpiece The Book of the New Sun. But I would put in a word for the short story "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories," a meditative story which, depending on how you look at it, depicts neglected boy losing himself in a book of pulp science fiction or a book of pulp science fiction entering a boy's abusive environment to salvage him. It's the title story of the hilariously-named collection The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. (Wolfe also wrote "The Death of Doctor Island," which won the Nebula, "The Doctor of Death Island," and, somewhat later, "The Death of the Island Doctor.")

"The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" was part of a famous and ghastly faux pas. The Nebula Awards MC, Isaac Asimov, actually announced at the awards banquet that "Island" had won that year's Nebula for Best Short Story, and Wolfe stood up to accept the award before Asimov realized that Wolfe was the runner-up. "No Award" had won for Best Short Story that year. If that sounds to you a bit like the story about Pynchon, the Pulitzers, and Gravity's Rainbow, both stories are from the same era and feature profound, boundary-pushing work. As I said, Wolfe was never honored enough, in his parish or out of it.

Here are just the first two paragraphs of "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories":

Winter comes to water as to land, though there are no leaves to fall. The waves that were a bright, hard blue yesterday under a fading sky today are green, opaque, and cold. If you are a boy not wanted in the house you walk the beach for hours, feeling the winter that has come in the night; sand blowing across your shoes, spray wetting the legs of your corduroys. You turn your back to the sea, and with the sharp end of a stick found half buried write in the wet sand Tackman Babcock.

Then you go home, knowing that behind you the Atlantic is destroying our work.

Godspeed, Mr. Wolfe. You wrote in something far more durable than sand.

cross-posted from Dagblog. All comments welcome there, not here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Your Public Domain Day Report, 2019: YES!!!

Today, at last, is Public Domain Day in the United States. For the first time in decades, some American copyrights were actually allowed to expire naturally, a mere thirty-nine years later than planned. So after years of blogging, every January first, about what wasn't entering public domain and what would have entered public domain under earlier laws, I can finally blog about what is entering public domain.

Various media outlets are covering this as a strange oddity, to the point that they're trying to explain what the public domain is to a puzzled and skeptical public. But the oddity is that we've kept so much in copyright for so long. What is happening today should not be news. It is a return to normal.

So today everything that was originally published in 1923 becomes free for anyone to republish, repurpose, or reuse. If that seems drastic to you, remember that all of those copyrights were originally set to expire in 1980. After the copyright law was revised in the late seventies, those works should still have become public domain in 1999. Ninety-five years of copyright protection is much more than enough.

Other places have already compiled lists of the big hits becoming publicly available: Robert Frost's Pulitzer-winning collection New Hampshire, with its smash hit single "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening," Harold Lloyd's classic short Safety, Last! (the one where he dangles off the clock), the Charleston, "Yes! We Have No Bananas," King Oliver's recording of "Dippermouth Blues" with his kid sidekick, Louis Armstrong. Hemingway's stories "Up in Michigan" and "My Old Man," become free for anyone to use today, and Brecht's In the Jungle of Cities, and Cather's A Lost Lady. Dorothy Sayers's detective Lord Peter Wimsey enters public domain as his first appearance does, but woe betide you if you try to publish a Wimsey mystery that draws on elements of his character from later, still-copyrighted appearances. 1923 was a busy year. We should have everything from 1962, or at least everything from 1943, but I'm happy to have the public-domain clock ticking again.

Perhaps more importantly, anyone is now free to rescue any obscure work from 1923 that they think deserves more attention. Want to digitize an old silent film before the last copy disintegrates? Want to republish a novel from 1923 that was totally ahead of its time? Go ahead. You don't have to track down the copyright holders to pay them. A lot of works that should have already been rescued in this way haven't, because after this long copyright holders are impossible to track down. One of the problems of making copyright terms so ungodly long is that it prevents salvage and restoration efforts, because the original copyright holders have lost track or lost interest.

We think of copyright as the right to publish, but what it really is, in practice, is the right to prevent publication. If you're making money of a novel that's in copyright, you can keep anyone else from publishing it. But copyright also means many things can't be published at all. And it frees the copyright holders, who are protected from competition, not to publish particular versions of the works they control. If Disney wanted to take the 1977 theatrical release of Star Wars out of circulation until 2073, they would have the legal right to do that.

So Vintage Books will be republishing Frost's New Hampshire this month, right on time, in an edition that recreates the woodcut illustrations from the original publication. (Those illustrations just entered public domain today, too.) No one's been able to buy a copy of New Hampshire as a stand-alone for decades. The original publisher, Henry Holt, could have brought one out any time they liked, pictures and all. But they didn't want to. They wanted to sell you Frost's complete poems, or a selection of favorites. Imagine the Beatles's rights-holders would sell you a box set, or a collection of greatest hits, but not Sergeant Pepper's or Abbey Road. If you wanted to see the actual book of poems that Frost put together, in the form he chose at that point in his career, you basically couldn't.

Starting now, readers will have a choice. You can still get the collected poems from Holt. You can get an individual collection of poems from Vintage. If Holt doesn't like that, they can reissue New Hampshire themselves. Maybe they'll have to commission some extra bells and whistles to make their book more attractive to buyers, like a new introduction or notes or copies of Frost's drafts. The choices will only increase. You can combine "Stopping by the Woods" with its original illustration as a poster if you want, and that's not necessarily a bad idea. In fact, putting Frost back into circulation in a competitive market economy might give the old boy some new life. It's probably good for him. In fact, it should have happened thirty years earlier.