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Searching for beauty in the dissonance

Taking a Free Culture Approach to Music

This post originally appeared on Roots Music Canada.

When I tell someone that all of my recordings are downloadable for free, I’m often asked, “but… how will you make money?

“Well,” I’ll respond, “since it doesn’t cost me anything, I may as well let people share and listen to my music so that they might connect with it and become interested in the associated scarcities—physical goods, the creation of new music, authenticity, personalization, live performances, etc… It makes more sense to charge for the scarce things than for the abundant. People need to hear and like music before they’re willing to buy, so I want people to download it.”

“Okay,” a musician might respond, “and you still have royalties and licensing.”

The fun begins: “Er… no, actually, my music is available royalty-free, even for commercial use.”

“Huh?”

“Yep,” I’ll continue. “There are only two requirements: attribution, and that derivative works remain under the same licence. Otherwise, people are free to do what they want.”

At this point, the person I’m talking to is either incredibly curious, or convinced that I’m certifiably insane.

Why on earth would I do this?

Copyright Conundrum

Copyright is supposed to provide an incentive for authors to create because we, as a society, see a benefit in more works being created. However, it’s been radically expanded in both depth and breadth. Unlike the original 14-year terms, copyright now extends well beyond the author’s death; works used to enter the public domain within a few decades, but now it takes a few generations. Also, it used to be that copyright only regulated large corporations—you needed a printing press or a broadcast tower to trigger the law—but now it affects the everyday activities of anyone with a computer.

It’s become an astonishingly unprecedented restriction on our culture. Can you imagine if Shakespeare had to negotiate licensing agreements for each of the stories he repurposed? Yet, some seek to criminalize sharing and we must hire lawyers to get permission just to build on the culture around us. We must pay [PDF] for the privilege of dancing to copyrighted music. James Boyle, author of The Public Domain, said that “we are the first generation to deny our own culture to ourselves.” Society has become too focused on the unnatural notion of “intellectual property.”

20th-century culture was largely passive and read-only—a broadcast culture. But it’s wonderful and natural that we seek to reinterpret and build upon the culture we find around us, and it’s exciting that digital technology makes it easier. Creation is a fundamentally social act—not a solitary one—and its social dimension is something to be celebrated; it’s a beautiful expression of our humanity. I embrace an active culture with which we all have the freedom to engage… but current copyright law makes that illegal. James Boyle also points out that “no work created during your lifetime will, without conscious action by its creator, become available for you to build upon.”

As a creator, I’ve taken that conscious action to set my work free.

Free Culture

I use a Creative Commons (CC) Attribution-Share Alike (BY-SA) licence for all of my music and writing (including this post). CC BY-SA is a free licence—not free as in price, but free as in freedom. A free culture is the opposite of a permission culture: anyone has the freedom to use, share, remix, cover, rewrite or adapt my music.

Now, “remix” can be a funny word for songwriters. For some, the immediate word association is “techno,” but derivative works can include music videos, films, new songs, covers, as well as recordings that are “remixed” in the strict technical sense. I can also take freely licensed photos from Flickr to use as artwork for my songs. “Free culture” isn’t about quirky viral videos and the responses they inspire, but the broad spectrum of possibilities when freedom and collaboration can scale. Using a free licence opens up new potential for creating art and connecting with fans by removing the legal barriers to artistic freedom and widespread collaboration.

Commercial Use

Free licences allow commercial use: my music can be sold—by me, or anyone else—and I’ve waived the right to collect royalties. This was by far the biggest hurdle.

Most CC licences aren’t free. I initially used a Noncommercial (NC) licence with my band back in 2005—that seemed like a no-brainer at the time—but I later became convinced of the problems with NC restrictions. For example, NC restrictions limit derivative works to the realm of the hobbyist; once money enters the equation, NC licences still present a permission culture (hence their non-free status). Plus, NC restrictions rule out many basic uses you might want to allow: a blog with ads or a non-profit fundraiser could both qualify as commercial, and a remix of your own NC music by someone else is off-limits to you commercially. NC restrictions don’t allow a free culture to flourish… but, they do leave the door open for music licensing opportunities.

Giving up the prospect of royalties and licensing was hard. Ultimately, I decided that free culture and new media were more important for me. Copyright restrictions apply to bloggers and webcasters as well as radio stations, and SOCAN collects from large corporate radio, but also from kids’ gymnastic clubs and buskers. I’d rather focus on free culture and the Internet as a passion and competitive edge than be confined by a read-only, broadcast-based permission model. Royalties make as much sense on the Internet as they would in a conversation; it’s not broadcast, it’s a communications medium. I’ve decided to go the free culture route with the Internet in mind, even if it means no royalties from traditional mediums.

Exploitation

CC BY-SA is a “copyleft” licence—meaning, all rights reversed; it imposes a copyright restriction against restricting people: all derivative works must be released under the same licence. Someone is free to include my music in a video and sell it, but the derivative work must also be BY-SA, so I’d be able to profit from the derivative in the same way that people can profit from my original. It’s mutually beneficial. (If someone wanted to use my work without “sharing alike,” e.g. a TV show, with many other rights holders involved, that’s one case where traditional licensing is still an option.)

In terms of someone else just selling my stuff (e.g. CDs with my music), I’ve come to view that as an opportunity rather than a liability. If Sony wanted to distribute my music, with no cost or contract on my part… who am I to complain? They’d be helping me. CC BY-SA filmmaker, Nina Paley, argues that when others make money off your content, it’s free market research. “If any [competitors] do exceptionally well, I’ll know what merch I should be selling,” she says. Paley uses the Creator-Endorsed Mark to signal to consumers which distributors are actually sharing profits with her. Brad Sucks, a Canadian BY-SA musician, has also found ways to profit while allowing commercial use.

If you’re focused on innovating and monetizing real scarcities, allowing commercial use simply presents new opportunities.

Moving Forward

Licensing my music freely was a huge decision, and I’ve only scratched the surface of my reasoning here. I may have closed many doors, but I’m excited about the doors I’ve opened. This approach isn’t going to work for everyone, but with artists like Nina Paley and Brad Sucks paving the way, I’m committed to exploring how it can work for my music.

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