The InsiderOne Daily Report

  Friday, April 27, 2001

Post-Digital Age Blues

InsiderOne's Michael Goldberg writes: I was asked to speak at a conference on media and law, attended by several hundred members of the legal profession. (I'm writing this a few days before the conference, but you're reading the day after.) The premise seems to be that technology is changing the world, and in the process creating all kinds of legal issues. One of the panels I'm on is called "Intellectual Property After Napster," in which I plan to give a brief demonstration on how peer-to-peer file-sharing works, then editorialize a bit about what it all means. So I've been lost in thought about this for the past few days. I was in the car, driving, with Teenage Fanclub's Songs From Northern Britain playing. I wasn't paying close attention. But then an unmistakable Neil Young rhythm and chord progression began, in a song called "Mount Everest." Hmm. This is a Teenage Fanclub song, I thought, but it uses a lot of Neil Young's feel. But, so far at least, Young hasn't sued Teenage Fanclub. Nor has he sued the Red House Painters, who based much of an album on a Neil Young-like sound. Now, obviously, if a new song is too close to an old song, the writer or publisher of the old song can sue — and in some cases, win. Unless the writer of the new song that sounds a bit like the old song is the same person, in which case the publisher of the old song (if it's neither the writer nor the publisher of the new song) can sue, and can lose the suit. That's what happened when the publisher of an old John Fogerty song, "Run Through the Jungle," sued Fogerty a number of years back, claiming that "The Old Man Down the Road" was a rewrite of "Run Through the Jungle." They were suing because — guess what! — John Fogerty sounded like John Fogerty. The audio collage artist John Oswald says he can't release his career overview album, 69plunderphonics96, because he can't get licenses for all the samples he incorporated into his work, a critique and commentary on pop culture, consumerism and a whole lot more. Now if Oswald had hired musicians and slavishly re-recorded short bits of music by the artists he sampled and then used those in his piece, would that have been OK? There are a lot of lines here, and a lot of grey areas. I read today that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), an organization that seems to file lawsuits as frequently as I buy CDs, has threatened to sue Princeton computer scientist Edward W. Felten if his research group presents a paper on how to get around copyright protection technology being created by the Secure Digital Music Initiative (S.D.M.I.) at the Fourth International Information Hiding Workshop that began in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, April 25. I mean, it's not exactly like he's giving away formulas for creating atomic weapons! And someone's going to crack the code and send the key to their closest million or so friends, anyway. I certainly have no answer for those who create copyrighted material and who want to be paid for their work. I believe they should be paid. But like many others, I also think that this new post-digital world requires new solutions. The old ones just aren't working anymore. And there's no sign that anyone is going to be able to make them work in the near, or far, future. And, somehow, filing lawsuits doesn't seem like the answer.

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Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

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