Tribune, Tempo, Arts & Entertainment section, February 3,
Culture Leads To a Clash
In the days before Napster helped transform esoteric copyright discussions into a pop cultural debate, Kembrew McLeod remembers hanging around my adviser's office in college back in '91, talking about trademark and copyright issues. Wouldn't it be funny, I joked, if someone trademarked the phrase 'freedom of expression'?
McLeod, now a professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa, says he toyed with the idea until 1998 when he "actually went out and did it." Intended as an argument against what he perceived as Draconian intellectual property laws, the unassuning 32-year old wants to spark some debate.
"I'm here today to announce formally that I'm pursuing legal action against AT&T," McLeod deadpans during a recent visit to Chicago. "They are using my trademarked phrase, 'freedom of expression,' as their slogan for an ad campaign targeting college students and I take offense to that."
At the intersection of art and commerce lies the thorny issue of rights and ownership: should artists be allowed to freely use trademarked or copyrighted material? McLeod is in the "yes" camp, as are the artists whose work is part of a new multimedia exhibit called "Illegal Art: Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age." The exhibit, which includes McLeod's trademark certificate, is on dsplay through Feb. 21 in the loftlike space of In These Times Magazine's West Bucktown offices.
Articulating the debate
It's the brainchild of Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive project, a movement to digitize as many texts and books as possible, and Carrie McLaren, the editor and publisher of the Brooklyn-based Stay Free! magazine.
The assembled visual art, video collages and music samples offer a thought-provoking, though one-sided articulation of the debate.
"Copyrights are supposed to generate an economic incentive for people to enrich the culture by doing creative work," explains McLaren. "But that shouldn't inhibit the free flow of information."
For the purposes of this show, the issue is portrayed as David-and-Goliath-like battle between small and large corporations. Some of the artwork here has a cheeky sensibility, such as Heidi Cody's "American Alphabet," which spells out the word "SUBVERT" using distinctive letters from corporate logos; the bold, black "V" from V-8, the red cursive "E" from Eggo Waffles, the slanted "T" from Tide. Other works are clearly meant to be political. Diana Thorneycroft's pencil drawings portray dolls in gruesome death poses. In one, Micky Mouse hangs from a noose, his neck snapped backward. In another, Barney Rubble lies on the ground, a pool of blood pouring from his head. The artist said these images are meant to convey the "hypocritical way that society ignores the violence that is often at the heart of child's play."
Then there is Aric Obrosey's "Oily Doily," which combines the logos of oil companies, such as Shell and Texaco, to create a lacey kaleidoscope in the shape of an oil spill.
So far, no legal action has been brought against the exhibit, but the threat clearly lingers in the air.
"We're headed towards a future where everything is going to be privately owned by intellectual property owners," says McLeod. "Basically what this means is, if a company doesn't like what you have to say, whether it's liberal or conservative, they have the ability to make you disappear."
But according to University of Chicago law professor Douglas Baird, copyright laws (as well as trademark and patent laws) are beneficial to society as a whole, not only as an incentive to create, but an incentive to preserve our intellectual and artistic output.
Orphans of the art world
"There are works that no one owns. I call these the orphans, and I really worry about them because they're not being taken care of. There's a real concern that no one will preserve this stuff...and the best way to ensure that something will stay around is by giving it value."
McLeod sees it a little differently. "The problem isn't with the law," he explains. "The problem is with the companies with deep pockets. The whole thing boils down to who has more money to waste on litigation, rather than who is in the right. A better copyright system would protect people without the financial means to fight in court."
He points to the example of Negativland's 1991 single, "U2," which sampled portions of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" with outtakes from Casey Kasem's American top-40 radio broadcast.
"Negativland got hammered by Island Records (U2's label), and these musicians just didn't have the money to defend themselves against the big corporation."
That song and 20 other copyright-infringing compositions are compiled on a CD distributed for free at the exhibit. The music can also be downloaded from the web site, www.illegal-art.org
In theory, Negativland should have been protected under fair use, which grants access to copyrighted material for parody, journalistic or education purposes. But increasingly, as the internet and digital technologies change the way we access music, words and visual images, copyright holders – be they corporations or artists themselves – are flexing their legal muscle.
Big business is not always victorious in these matters. The Supreme Court recently turned down toymaker Mattel's request to reopen a trademark fight over "Barbie Girl," the 1997 dance hit by the Danish pop group Aqua. Mattel's legal action stemmed form concerns that young girls were misled into thinking the derogatory song was, in fact, part of the company's official line of Barbie products.
According to Baird, this litigious butting of heads occurs because "either side can't believe the other is acting in good faith."
Ironically, an untintended consequence of copyright protection is that it also generates a financial incentive to extend these very copyright laws themelves.
The Supreme Court recently upheld a 20-year extension of the length of copyright terms, a major victory for entertainment and publish industries, which have billions of dollars at stake.
McLeod says he is pursuing the AT&T matter because he wants to create "a point of controversy, some spectacle that will pop up on the media radar. I want to provoke thought and create a debate."
Of course, he allows, "there's a real danger that I could be relegated to court jester status. But I think it's important that we discuss this outside academia."
McLaren, who plans to take the exhibit to San Francisco this spring, agrees. "Art is always going to draw things from culture. We're a self-referential society. How can we not express how we feel about these advertisements and brands that surround us?"
"I think this is the right time to do a show like this," she continues. "People are so [upset] about what's going on in the music industry and all these attempts to legislate how we use our computers and how we use our digital media. The exhibit seems to have captured the zeitgeist."