Saturday, January 24, 2009

In Praise of Creative Freedom 4: "He took a straight walk up to Washington city"

This humorous popular song by The Corrigan Brothers discusses President Barack Obama's Irish ancestry. (The genealogical facts are discussed in some detail here.) One important aspect of the song is the melody, which is clearly derived from (though not identical to) a traditional tune, Sweet Betsy from Pike (also known as Villikins and his Dinah). The traditional air can be heard here at the Digital Tradition.

The Corrigan Brothers are not the first to re-use this traditional tune. Many popular songs were sung to it in the 19th century. One such song, found in the 1896 book Lincoln's Campaign was a political song from 1860 about then President-elect Abraham Lincoln:

One Abr'am there was who lived out in the West,
Esteemed by his neighbors the wisest and best;
And you'll see, on a time, if you follow my ditty,
How he took a straight walk up to Washington city.

Others are available on-line at the Library of Congress's American Memory web site. The song titled "A new song for Sherman & Sheriden", begins

To SHERIDAN and SHERMAN, great merit is due,
They routed the Rebels each place they went to.
In the Shenandoah Valley they struck a home blow,
Where SHERIDAN whipped EARLY, who was a great foe.

Writing words "to the tune of" a popular air is always possible, even if the air is under copyright. But performing the air publicly is an exclusive right of the holder of copyright in the air. It is because the air Sweet Betsy from Pike is publici juris that The Corrigan Brothers were able not only to write words for it, but to perform it publicly as well, and post a recording of it to You-tube, all without being impeded by the frictional force of copyright clearance. Had Sweet Betsy from Pike been under copyright, The Corrigan Brothers might have been compelled to use a different tune, possibly with less success, since it is at partly due to its catchy melody that their song has become popular.

So here is another example of what Professor Lessig calls "Remix culture." The creative freedom allowed by the public domain has led to "progress of Science", in this case, the sciences of music and political humor.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Video: How copyright extension in sound recordings actually works

This video from the Open Rights Group does a quick survey of the issues involved in the European proposal to extend the term of exclusive rights in phonograms by 45 years.

This batch of articles in the Independent implies that the two just-released box sets of Buddy Holly recordings only became possible this year due to expiration of the exclusive rights in Europe over phonograms made in 1958.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Are online used-book sales killing the publishing industry?

In an article in the "Week in Review" section of the Sunday, 28 December 2008 New York Times, David Streitfeld examines the question of whether on-line resale of used books is hurting the publishing industry. Streitfeld seems certain that "traditional bookstores will continue to fade" in this new environment.

I prefer to think that publishers and traditional bookstores will continue to adapt to this new environment. Mr. Streitfeld seems only peripherally aware of an important part of this equation: if a copy of a recently-published book is available used on-line, then that copy was already bought from its publisher. If a book is in high demand, the used copies available on-line will disappear from the market quickly. Those who wish to have a copy immediately will purchase new copies. Mr. Streitfeld seems to think (I say "seems to" because he doesn't work this out explicitly) that a small number of copies will flow from reader to reader through on-line channels; that most people will be willing to wait their turn for one of these few circulating copies. I think that for many books there will be readers who don't want to wait, or who want a new copy. If the publisher can issue a moderate initial print run and then, if demand proves to be strong, bring new copies to market quickly, it may still have a window in which to make a profit before the market for used copies saturates. Surely this calculus is little different from the hardback/paperback computation that publishers already do? Libraries and some readers will want a more durable hardback copy. Some readers will be willing to borrow the book from the library while waiting six months to a year to buy the paperback edition. The publishing industry has been pleading incompetence since the late 17th century. Yet it adapted to the existence of libraries and paperbacks. It will adapt to the existence of an on-line market for used books.