This Just In: Warner Music Group Lacks Sense of Irony, Common Sense

Ever since Warner Music Group pitched a hissy fit over copyright infringement on Youtube, finally reaching “a new and expanded agreement” with Youtube’s parent company, Google, it has been by far the most aggressive about protecting copyright claims on that sight– often flagrantly disregarding fair use.

I have to say that personally, I don’t see how a sixteen year old kid playing a Prince song on his ukulele and sharing it with friends over YouTube in any way threatens either Mr. Nelson’s or WMG’s intellectual property or record sales. Most of these claims are against the SPIRIT of copyright law– as it is outlined in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution– if not the letter of the law. But the letter of the law is on their side, at least in those cases. Less so with other claims that fall very solidly under fair use protection.

And then there’s the claims that show not just that WMG is tone-deaf when it comes to the Constitution, but to basic principles of irony, like when a copyright claim on a small clip of music was used to silence a video of fair-use advocate and lawyer Larry Lessig. These are the transgressions that really point to the cluelessness of large groups of people following bureaucratic dictate with no larger guiding principle than profit.

I’ve gone on this little rant because I’ve finally gotten my first copyright complaint on YouTube.

Almost four years ago, I created the below video for a class project. I was trying to familiarize myself with basic editing programs, and to create a little video about US Labor History, with a slightly IWW sympathy.

I chose Billy Bragg’s rendition of The Internationale for several reasons. The song itself was a natural choice for a video on Labor History and looking at radicalism within the producing classes. Bragg’s version was in English, sung more like a folk song than an opera, and his revised lyrics emphasize a humanistic syndicalism that I feel represents some of the best aspects of American Labor in the periods between the Civil War and WWII.

The song is very much in the public domain here in the US– though apparently not in France. I found Billy Bragg’s version on a website of public domain music, and I’ll admit, I didn’t do my full due diligence, but as this was just a class project, I felt it was sufficient to do a bit. Finding it on that site, and then tracking down that the original version was recorded by Bragg on his Utility Records label, I felt safe. Even if the strictly educational purpose of the video– created for a class as a primative attempt at digital pedagogy– didn’t qualify my use as fair use, and even if it wasn’t viewed– as I feel it could be– as protected political speech… I just figured that, as the copyright holder, Billy Bragg wasn’t going to go after me for making a rather lefty student project about labor history.

But it turns out that Electra re-issued the album that this appeared on, and since Warner bought Electra in 1970, yes, WMG may indeed have some sort of claim on the music. I don’t have the particulars, and it depends on the nature of the reissue contracts, etc., but yes, they may have some claim.

And yes, nearly four years and nearly four thousand YouTube views later, they may well be within their rights to give me a copyright warning. Although given their scattershot approach, I’d really love the right to ask them to show me the paperwork before I believe it.

And I’m lucky, I guess. My video hasn’t been silenced or taken down. I just got off with a warning. As the little automated copyright imp inside of Youtube tells me, “No action is required on your part. Your video is still available worldwide. In some cases ads may appear next to your video.”

But that’s when the second shoe falls, irony-wise. Yes, WMG is challenging my right to use a piece of music that is really the property of a body of people who don’t believe in corporate personhood or private property. Yes, they are saying that they are the corporate owners and protectors of a song that features the lyrics:

When we fight, provoked by their aggression,
Let us be inspired by life and love.
For though they offer us concessions,
Change will not come from above!

…But I expect this sort of tone-deafness to irony. What shocks and delights me, however, is the idea of ads appearing next to my little video about the resistance and dignity of exploited workers. I wonder what products they might use to subsidize my use and pay off WMG for my use of the song. Because no matter what it is, there’s a good chance that it’ll be a product that is producing an unsafe product, or outsourcing American jobs to countries with fewer worker protections, or using sweatshop labor to keep prices low.

And I think, yeah– I wouldn’t mind having these images, this music, used next to such an ad. At all. Maybe it’ll make people think about where their Nikes or their Chinese-built electronics come from. Maybe this ad placement will actually, despite the intentions of the corporations involved, raise consciousness a little tiny bit about the machine of production in an international economy.

Or maybe they’ll eventually silence it, and I’ll just have to upload it again with a crappy MIDI file of the song.

ETA: Apparently, YouTube has silenced yet another Lessig video.

Good to know you’re not alone.