Sunday, June 6, 2010

Childs Play

Recently I spent some time with a group of children who consistently and for a period of time no creator should endure, played the mimicking game in which they repeated all of my phrases and in some cases my body language.

To begin with I ignored what was happening hoping that it would end on its own without further comment. As the person in the hot seat I was focused on more important things than the repetition of my language. However as time went on it became something more along the lines of annoyance. I found myself starting to wonder about why it was that they found this game so rewarding. Later, after another extended period of time, I became more or less used to the repetition and started to play a long a little.

This experience led me to think about cover versions – I jokingly said on more than one occasion that they were a poor cover version and made reference to the TISM song ‘Thou shalt not Britney’. The lack of original composition, the misinterpretation and misuse of my language was an interesting experience to analyse.

In Australia, unlike the United States, one must still seek a license in order to cover an original song. With limited fair dealing provisions, none of which are clearly stated to provide a solid basis on which to adapt a song readily, cover versions and samples both require legal assistance to ensure one does not breach copyright law. Of course, in the United States a license is automatically granted on the payment of a set royalty for cover versions, whereas samples require a license – a situation that, like Australia, more commonly than not, requires legal assistance. Precedent with respect to samples in the United States at this point fails to adequately accommodate creators wishing to build on the works of others under the fair use provisions of the Copyright Act. Parody and satire are defences in both countries that fall within the lawful reuse of expression but the boundaries are not clear.

And so here I am with this group of children, holding them out at arms length and wondering why this would be such a compelling game. Often people refer to cover versions as an easy way to establish a new act. The repetition or “modernisation” of a song already known to the public seems to allow older audience members to relate to new artists by renewing a connection from the past thus emulating an emotional context established at an earlier time. But here the repetition by these children was immediate, these children were in fact teasing me with my own language – could this be a ‘political’ use of my speech? (Indeed it was not just for fun but was to undermine my position in relation to them and my authority).

I have only around 1000 songs on my iPod, most of which I accumulated whilst a presenter of a political music program on community radio called ‘Music with a Message’. Despite having such a small collection of songs (I believe the average iPod user holds around 3 times this amount or more) I have some pairs of songs. I have a Red Gum Song titled ‘I was only 19’ from the 1980s which refers to the Vietnam war as well as a modern version of the same song by The Herd. Furthermore I have the Paul Kelly song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’ also from the 1980s as well as an adapted version of this song by a number of artists that was released in support of the Stolen Generation in 2008. Finally I have ‘The Guns of Brixton’ by the Clash, again from the 1980s, and have tried to purchase ‘The Guns of Brooklyn’ by Bliss and Esso (so far without luck). This is the political re-use of music.

It seems to me that there is a continuum with respect to the copying of expression. At one end there is the sample, followed by the cover version, then adaptations, transformative uses, and finally parody and satire. Like shades of white to black with much grey in the middle, the law attempts to dissect and categorise without clarity unless one is at the polar ends of the continuum. Moral rights with respect to non derogatory treatment further intensify the legal complexities in Australia while in the United States these rights do not exist.

The main difference between the children in this instance and follow on creators is the intention with which the copying takes place. In my experience I was the person that they sought to undermine whilst for follow on creators, particularly with respect to political music, the intention is to educate or motivate a third party, namely an external audience. What in one instance may be best referred to as ‘childs play’ by analogy translates into reiteration and iteration with a view to changing people and the world. The original creators, when they have a choice, my not wish to allow a repetition of their expression but in some respects should see it more as a complement rather than as a personal attack.

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