The following appeared in the September 2000 issue of Rock & Rap Confidential.
This article also appears on riffage.com:
Is It Stealing or "Fair Use"?
In his song "Pablo Picasso," Jonathan Richman recites a litany of things that Pablo could get away with (and Jonathan couldn't) because he was the coolest person in the universe and drove an El Dorado.
If Picasso were working today, he would lose his privileges and be labeled a thief. Picasso practiced the art of expropriation. His collages contained work he didn't draw or paint -- stuff you could say he sampled. They even included trademarked, copyrighted images from bottles of booze and cigarette packages.
Anyhow, that's how we treat people who do the same stuff with music now. Which resulted in a dilemma for the folks in the Droplift Project. Their project is a CD featuring the work of 29 sound collage artists -- people you've never heard of like Tim Maloney, Turntable Trainwreck, Project Data Control and EMP-T, working with bits picked up from TV shows, radio broadcasts and records, among other things. The collagists tweak these bits, sometimes adding noises they've made themselves using instruments, sometimes just playing with sound-altering devices like samplers.
Although the best of these collages are fascinating, it's not exactly the most commercial genre, so the Droplift gang decided to distribute their CD themselves. But record stores refused to stock it, fearing they'd get busted for copyright violations.
See, there is a concept called "fair use" in the copyright law, which lets artists expropriate bits and pieces of previous creations so long as what they're doing results in a distinctively different work. But the record industry cartel, along with other large-scale purveyors of what is revoltingly known as "intellectual property," doesn't like fair use, because it doesn't make them any money. So they've constructively abolished fair use by having their lawyers insist on payment for every James Brown wheeze and P-Funk sneeze. Artists can only resist to the extent of their own ability to fund a lawsuit. Mostly, they cough up.
But the artists on Droplift don't have the economic clout of even a baby gangsta rapper. Several years ago, the great audio collagists, Negativland, were nearly driven out of business when U2 and Island Records pursued them for "uncleared samples." So what could the Droplift gang do?
Because they are creative geniuses, they figured it out. They took discs into stores and sneaked them onto the shelves. They could even decide which area to file them under. Should it be hip-hop for the beat? Electronic music for the tweaks? Avant-garde for the process? Rock & roll for the attitude? D for Droplift? P for Project? How about all of the above?
Of course, when shoppers tried to buy a Droplift disc, commercial havoc ensued. How much could the store charge for a record it might not even own and which could be a lawsuit in the making at any price? Mostly, the clerks asked the managers and the managers said, "Just let 'em take if they want it," and sent the stock boy to see if he could figure out where the pranksters had put the rest of the contraband.
In 1912, Pablo Picasso nearly was arrested for possession of two stolen Iberian sculptures. His pal Apollinaire took the fall without ratting on his pal. If this anti-shoplift movement catches on, will the first person the FBI's anti-piracy division arrests on behalf of the Recording Industry Assn. of America (RIAA), be so loyal?
(You can download the Droplift Project music free at www.droplift.com)