Don't Throw Out The Baby With The Bathwater: Changing Laws, The "I Have A Dream" Speech, And Copyright Policy

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This Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech. If you're like me, then you've probably seen snippets of that speech a hundred times, but never seen the full unedited version. That's because the speech is protected under copyright law until 2038, and anyone who copies, distributes, shares, or posts a video of the speech online will be violating copyright law and will legally owe restitution to the video's owner... Sony.* [Like when Sony ordered advocacy group Fight For The Future to remove the video from its website.]

Am I the only who thinks this is terrible? What kind of policy allows a major corporation to sue someone who wants to share with others THE ICONIC CIVIL RIGHTS MOMENT OF OUR TIME? Who is this policy protecting?

You may have noticed that I'm pretty vocal when I think changes should be made to U.S. policy, specifically copyright law. As a result, I've been accused several times of pursuing a "throw out the baby with the bathwater" agenda. But that's not really accurate since I've never called for scrapping laws wholesale. I have, on the other hand, advocated for revising laws that don't work as intended. I personally see advocating for better and smarter laws as my duty, not just as a lawyer, but as an American citizen (which, not so ironically, was kind of the point of Dr. King's speech).

And what's wrong with supporting change anyway? Not to be overly dramatic here, but America was founded on this whole idea of "it's not working out, so let's do something better." We went to war with England because we didn't like the way they governed us. We constructed a republican system of government that permits us to remove and replace politicians we don't like. We gave Congress the power to revise, update, and repeal laws because we recognized that people are imperfect and they will pass imperfect laws. When a law doesn't achieve its goal, it should absolutely be amended. The U.S. Copyright Act alone has been amended at least 10 times since 1790.

I keep saying it, but it bears repeating: copyright law wasn't created solely for the purpose of rewarding the artist. It was also designed to foster originality and ingenuity for the betterment of society (the founding fathers didn't measure capitalist success purely through personal wealth. Community prosperity was also a driving factor) and to shield artists from theft. It wasn't intended to be used as a weapon to attack others. Which is why the problem isn't that Sony owns the copyright to Dr. King's speech; the problem is what it can do to harm individuals who wish to share it. Simply put, Sony has the muscle and will to litigate against anyone who posts the video, regardless of the intent of the individual or their ability to fight back. And I don't think that's right.

In that spirit, here are two ideas that I think will be effective in revamping copyright law to better serve the American people.

  1. Shorten the term limits on copyrights. Yeah, I've talked about this a lot. That just shows you how much I care about this issue. Copyright law was not designed to allow copyright owners to make money off a work in perpetuity. In fact, under the Copyright Act of 1790, copyright terms were set by the founders for a mere 14 years, specifically to prevent perpetual ownership. By shortening copyright terms, major corporate copyright owners such as Sony won't be able to bully individuals when they share something as innocuous and educational as Dr. King's speech. You can read a more complete take on that here.
  2. Create exemptions in our copyright laws for works that hold special historical significance. The "I Have A Dream" speech literally changed lives and shaped events in the 20th Century. Yet under our current copyright law, it's treated like every other work of artistic expression. A work of such historic stature shouldn't be owned by any one entity. It belongs to all Americans in the same way the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation do and it should be available to everyone, free of charge.

Change is in our national DNA. History has borne that out repeatedly, so why fight it? Dr. King believed that. Who are we to assume differently?

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* Dr. King himself owned the copyright and even sued to prevent unlawful reproductions of the speech so that he could distribute profits from it to civil rights causes. After his death, the copyright passed to his family, who sold the copyright to EMI in 2009. EMI was purchased by Sony in 2011.

Death of the Unpaid Internship, Part 2: Black Swan's Revenge

blackswanTwo weeks ago, my wife and I were driving home from an unsuccessful apartment hunting trip.  In an attempt to get my mind off the stress of looking for a new home, she asked me what I thought about the recent ruling in the Black Swan internship case.

For those who don't know: Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, two interns who worked on Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan sued the film’s distributor Fox Searchlight, claiming that the company’s unpaid internship program violated minimum wage and overtime laws.  They argue that they were wrongly classified as unpaid interns when they should have been paid employees.  Well about three weeks ago Federal Judge William H. Pauley III ruled in favor of Glatt and Footman, stating the two should have been paid for their work, and the failure to pay them was a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  In his opinion, Judge Pauley said that Glatt and Footman

worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training. The benefits they may have received - such as knowledge of how a production or accounting office functions or references for future jobs - are the results of simply having worked as any other employee works, not of internships designed to be uniquely educational to the interns and of little utility to the employer. They received nothing approximating the education they would receive in an academic setting or vocational school. 

Which essentially means that Glatt and Footman did not fall under the federal definition of "intern" and should have been paid as employees as a result.  Judge Pauley went on to say that even though Glatt and Footman knew what they were signing on for, the FLSA

does not allow employees to waive their entitlement to wages.... An employer is not to be allowed to gain a competitive advantage by reason of the fact that his employees are more willing to waive [FLSA claims] than are those of his competitor.

You can read the whole decision here if you like.  It's a pretty big deal and I'd be lying if I said I didn't make a celebratory fist-pump when I read the news.  [For the record, I'm only talking about internships taken by non-students, not educational internships, or volunteerism/ pro bono work]. I've made it known in the past that I'm no fan of the unpaid internship for adults who are no longer in college, which is why my wonderful and patient wife didn't bat an eyelash when, stressed out from looking at a string of ugly apartments, I snapped back, "Any company that refuses to pay employees for their work doesn't deserve to exist!"

That's a pretty militant proclamation and having some distance from the heat of the moment, I've decided that I support the content, even if the delivery and word choice don't properly communicate how I truly feel.  I shudder at the idea of being labeled an anti-corporate socialist (although I'm sure someone will accuse me of it), so allow me to clarify my stance.

  1. Unpaid internships for non-educational purposes are bad for employees because experience cannot pay the rent.
  2. Unpaid internships for non-educational purposes are bad for the market because they force entry-level workers to work for nothing, suppressing wages for everyone up the ladder, and thus reducing taxable and spendable income for workers.
  3. Unpaid internships for non-educational purposes are bad for our culture because they perpetuate the [absolutely wrong] belief that being taken advantage of is somehow the same thing as "paying your dues."

When a company elects not to pay an intern while profiting off his or her work, that tells the world that it's okay to get something for nothing, and that's not how capitalism is supposed to work.  I know first-hand what Glatt and Footman have gone through, taken advantage of and then cut loose.  The last time I wrote about this, a friend asked me if it was okay to accept an unpaid internship in the same industry she had already been working in for several years.  She had just moved to a new city and was concerned that she was an unknown commodity in her new location, despite her years of experience.  To her, the unpaid work would be a good way to break into the industry in that city and build a name.  While I understood her thought process, I strongly disagreed with her and told her to hold out for actual paying work.   To me, her willingness to go without pay signaled something rotten about how exclusionary our industries have become (especially the glamour industries like entertainment, publishing, and fashion), even to people who have experience within those industries.  Here is someone with six years of direct expertise in her field, who has skills that are immediately transferable and applicable, yet she felt that her only recourse was to start over from the bottom, as if she were a 19-year old freshman.

The longer I think about it, the less flexible I become on the matter.  Are there ever good reasons to accept unpaid work?  I'm sure someone will argue that building a reputation at the beginning of a career is a worthwhile excuse.  A few months ago I might have even been convinced.  Obviously every free-thinking adult should consider all the options before committing to a potential income drought and weigh those options based on the facts of each individual situation.  But looking at it from the macro view, I find those arguments unconvincing in the light of Judge Pauley's ruling - I personally believe you're better off finding a mentor and/or developing your own projects... you're going to be unpaid anyway, might as well develop some entrepreneurial skills while you're at it.  That's why I align myself behind the FLSA standards (found here) and feel comfortable stating categorically that unpaid internships are only acceptable when done for college credit and in conjunction with a legitimate educational institution.  The rest of the working world is starting to catch up too.  Two weeks ago, three former interns sued Gawker Media for violating the FLSA, and a few weeks before that, a former Condé Nast intern sued the company for paying her $1.00 an hour under its internship program.  Hell, one law firm is specializing in these Fair Labor internship cases by identifying individuals who held unpaid internships and reviewing the conditions of their employment for possible wage-and-hour violations.

So this is all good news right?  Well anything is possible.  It's certainly possible that the Black Swan case and all the subsequent unpaid internship cases might cause a sea change in the way employers run their internship programs.  It's possible that they'll start paying interns for their work.

But I don't really think that's going to happen.  My fear is that the current system will just continue to lurch forward in spite of the Black Swan ruling.  Or worse, companies will strip out any real work or educational opportunities and relegate interns to picking up coffee, dry cleaning, and lunch orders.  Lord knows there are enough people out there willing to bet that an unpaid internship is a lesser evil than complete and utter unemployment... I can understand that.  But the system only changes if we all make the commitment together.  I hope Glatt and Footman's win is the beginning of that change.

Protecting The Brand: Beyonce Knowles vs. The First Amendment

Remember when Beyoncé performed during the Super Bowl halftime show and this hilarious meme-birthing picture was taken?

Superbowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers  - Mercedes-Benz Superdome

And then she flipped out and tried to have it scrubbed from the entire internet?  Well, three months later and Queen Bey is back at it.  She's currently on her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour and she completely banned outside photographers, while releasing only pre-approved flattering pics to various news outlets.  Beyoncé's goal  is to have total control over her image, so instead of newspapers and websites running photos of her looking like She Hulk, she'll instead look like this:

beyonce-mrs-carter-world-tour_612x612

Reasonable minds can argue whether the kind of control she's attempting is even possible in the internet age (hint: it isn't).  But I'm more curious about the effect that this kind of totalitarianism will have on her brand.  The conventional wisdom is that Beyoncé isn't doing herself any favors by limiting press access to her and having relentless control over the pressers that do get access.  On the face of it, it makes her seem out of touch with reality.  But is that harmful to her brand?  I'm not so sure. The people who love Beyoncé are already convinced of her beauty, talent, and semi-royal status and are willing to write off the unflattering pics as aberrations.  And the people who don't love her?  Well they certainly won't be convinced by these autocratic methods, but I don't think she's trying to win them over anyway. Beyoncé knows herself and her audience, and as long as they keep her rich and famous, that's probably enough.

I've seen it argued that Beyoncé's grasp on her self-awareness is tenuous at best if she thinks she can control her image to this degree, but I would argue that she's read the situation better than we giver her credit for.  After all, she hasn't sued anyone to take down the unflattering pictures (to my knowledge, she only sent polite email requests to various outlets), and that fact tells me that she knows where the line is between egomania and villainy and she's not willing to cross it.

So my guess is that while this probably won't make her MORE popular, her brand is as safe as any celebrity brand can be.  But I say that with one caveat: she should avoid alienating the press, because they're the ones who can bring about her destruction.  If you've seen Beyoncé in interviews - as well as the remarkably self-serving HBO documentary she directed about herself - it's clear that she is a person of extreme self-confidence.  And the confidence she has in her abilities has driven some of the press to turn on her and lose their own grasps on reality.

In particular, the National Press Photographers Association.  They're claiming that the restrictions placed on them by Beyoncé and her management team is preventing them from doing their jobs, and that violates the First Amendment.   No, sorry fellas.  I understand that you're angry at having your access to Beyoncé cut off, but the First Amendment isn't applicable here.  Constitutional Law 101 tells us that the First Amendment only prevents the federal government (and state governments through a process known as incorporation) from restricting your freedoms of speech, press, religion, etc.  It says nothing about whether a person or organization can restrict your First Amendment rights... because they can!  Behold the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

As you can see, not a word leading you to believe that individuals (like Beyoncé!) or corporations (like Beyoncé!) can't place restrictions on the press at events.  In fact, all of the Amendments in the Bill of Rights are there to prevent the government from limiting your rights.  But they apply only to the government.  So while Beyoncé's ban on photogs at her concerts may not be the best PR move, there's no legal reason she can't do it.