You remember Blurred Lines right? It was the smash hit single of 2013 that simultaneously launched (for being catchy) and destroyed (for being rapey) Robin Thicke's career. Well, I'm here to report that this utterly forgettable pop song has now has earned an inauspicious spot in our culture because of a surprisingly foreboding jury decision that found against Thicke and his co-writers Pharrell Williams and Clifford "T.I." Harris, Jr.Read More
Last Tuesday, we all sat glued to our twitter feeds and livestreams as Apple wowed us with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and the Apple Watch. But if you paid close attention, you may have noticed that Apple didn’t just grace us with some fancy new baubles. They announced a third big reveal… every iTunes account holder was given a free copy of U2’s new album Songs of Innocence. I think Apple was hoping that everyone would be like “Oh, some free stuff. Free stuff is great. Thanks Apple!”
Instead, everyone freaked the hell out because while it was intended to be a nice gesture, it actually said a lot about how Apple (and every other tech company and even the government) views our right to privacy. Namely, that it doesn’t. The problem, of course, isn’t that Apple gave everyone a free copy of a new U2 album (which I’m sure is perfectly fine). It’s HOW they did it. They could have given iTunes users a link to the free download, but instead they went ahead and automatically downloaded the album onto your iPhone and iPad!
Just to reiterate. Apple downloaded an album onto your phone without your consent. If you haven’t already, go ahead and check your phone. I’ll wait. You should see a screen that looks a lot like this:
If you’re like me, you didn’t put it there. This intrusion concerns me because it's such a brazen statement about the state of privacy in this country. Between Facebook’s repeated privacy grabs and manipulations, and the NSAs long-storied collection of personal data, our individual privacy has been under aggressive assault for some time. This is just the latest - albeit a mostly benign - example.
Americans heavily prize their privacy, which makes it ground zero for parties that view individual privacy as a barrier to financial ascendancy or homeland security. These parties use the contentious legal status of privacy as leverage to intrude into your life without your consent. And believe it or not, privacy is a contentious issue... In fact, the Constitution does not mention privacy as a given right. Our modern understanding of the right to privacy is implied from other rights, specifically the 1st Amendment (right of belief), 3rd Amendment (privacy of the home), 4th Amendment (privacy of person and possessions), 5th Amendment (right against self-incrimination), 9th Amendment (no denial of other implicit rights), and the liberty clause of the 14th Amendment. These amendments all touch on privacy in their own way, but never address is explicitly. The Supreme Court calls these implications “penumbras” and “emanations.” That is, the right of privacy implicitly emanates from these other rights. And I think that lack of explicitness is why privacy is always a moving target.
And let’s face it, as a society, our sense of privacy (and it’s inextricable little brother, consent) is always shifting. A few weeks ago, the iCloud accounts of Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were hacked and their private nude photos leaked. When the photos were taken down from various sites, a cry rang out from certain corners of the internet who believed they should have access to those photos even though they were always intended to be private.
So I ask you, is privacy a relic of the 20th century? And if not, what can be done to curtail its utter demise? No one should be forced to own something just because it’s free, but soon enough it may not even be an option.
With all the injustices going on in the world (Ferguson, Gaza, Ebola, Boko Haram, Net Neutrality, the Emmy's being held on a Monday night, etc.) it's hard to gin up outrage over anything else... but my parents didn't raise me to be a quitter.
Today's outrage comes courtesy of Ultra Records. Last month, Michelle Phan, a Youtube Makeup Tutorial Star (a profession that certainly did NOT exist ten years ago), was sued by Ultra Records for using the music of some of its artist in her videos; specifically, the music of Kaskade, Late Night Alumni, Deadmau5 and Haley. Ultra claims that Phan used over 50 songs without their permission, an allegation her spokesperson denies.
If the story stopped there, I would be plenty mad. Even if Phan did use the songs without permission, why is it necessary for a corporation to gang up on her and drag her into the legal system? Why are they suing her for $150K for each infringed work, the maximum statutory amount (totaling over $7 million in damages)? In most cases, a simple cease-and-desist would have been enough to resolve the issue. By suing her for that much money, Ultra isn’t even trying to disguise its greenlust. It’s the equivalent of going pheasant hunting with an elephant gun.
What pushes this case into the realm of the absurd is that Kaskade, one of the musicians Phan is accused of infringing, doesn’t support the lawsuit. In a series of tweets, he’s come out in support of Phan, stating that “[c]opyright law is a dinosaur, ill-suited for the landscape of today’s media.”
Maybe he’s right. It's ridiculous that someone like Phan could be held accountable for millions of dollars for infractions that amount to little more than being a music fan. And whether or not a court finds her liable, the mere fact of being dragged through this process can be debilitating for someone like her who is trying to find a modicum of success on her own. What can be changed? How can copyright law better address a world where media is much easier to use and reuse? I don't really have an answer, although I suspect that disincentivizing lawsuits and shortening copyright term limits are ways to get the ball rolling.
Look, I know it’s hard out there for independent record labels. Being in the business of art is difficult enough in the best of times, and we are not in the best of times. When you factor in illegal torrenting, uncountable revenue streams, and strong-arm tactics by larger companies, you don’t always think straight. And the result is that labels like Ultra and organizations like the RIAA end up brutalizing the little guy in a show of force that that far exceeds the initial infraction.
That’s why I spend so much time railing against these large corporate copyright holders on this blog. Copyright law was never meant to be used a bludgeon to ground out the petty infringers, although that’s how it’s often used. It was designed to make society better and, while we’re at it, throw a little patronage to creators of valuable intellectual property to show them that their toiling hasn’t gone unnoticed.
I know this doesn’t seem like a big problem in light of everything going on in the world right now, but I think it’s yet another clear indicator that our priorities in this country are far afield: focusing on the privilege of the big over the rights of the small. And if we don’t pay attention to this problem, it’ll just get pulverized by something bigger and louder. In times like these, I like to remind myself of a quote that’s often misattributed to Winston Churchill. And even though he didn’t say it, I think it perfectly sums up the battle before us. When Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied "then what are we fighting for?"