Mashup artist calls for changes in copyright law

Copyright law should reflect new ways of creating art and content, a filmmaker says

U.S. copyright law should be updated to better reflect the changing ways that mashup artists and other new content creators use existing works, some participants in the first World's Fair Use Day said.

Artists shouldn't face threats of huge fines and prison time for sampling from copyright works, said filmmaker Nina Paley, creator of the film "Sita Sings the Blues."

Paley, speaking at an event in Washington, D.C., called for a wholesale rewrite of copyright law to allow mashup artists to create new works without threat of lawsuits or prison time.

Paley's 2008 film uses several songs from 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, and copyright holders demanded she pay US$220,000 for use of the works. Paley eventually settled for $50,000.

But Paley could've been charged with criminal copyright infringement, with a maximum penalty of five years in prison and large fines, she said. "Five years in jail for sharing my film?" she said. "That's insane."

Other speakers at the event, sponsored by digital rights group Public Knowledge, said it can be difficult for artists making parodies or mashups of existing copyright works to navigate the law and the attitudes of copyright holders toward their works.

In some cases, copyright holders appreciate the derivative works, but that's not always the case, said Jonathan McIntosh, a video remix artist, photographer and proprietor of RebelliousPixels.com.

Fair use is an exemption in U.S. copyright law that allows limited use of works under copyright without permission from the rights holders. Parody, teaching, news reporting and commentary are some of the uses allowed under fair use.

Fair use has been under attack by large copyright holders in recent years, said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge. The intent of World's Fair Use Day is to bring attention to fair-use rights and generate support for those rights, she said.

Some speakers at the event suggested that some artists and Web sites are pushing fair-use rights too far. Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira suggested gossip blog Gawker ripped off a story he wrote in July by posting lengthy excerpts of it.

Some blogs, by excerpting at length, are discouraging readers from going to the original article, Shapira said. "After all the reporting, it took me about a day to write the 1,500-word piece," Shapira wrote in an opinion piece for the Post.

"How long did it take Gawker to rewrite and republish it, cherry-pick the funniest quotes, sell ads against it and ultimately reap 9,500 (and counting) page views?"

Blogs that link to original articles are good, he said. "But when you excerpt so heavily that it makes it totally pointless for you to go to the original article, there are very severe repercussions," he said. "All I'm saying is that, any Web site that creates original content should be rewarded."

Other speakers suggested that sites like Gawker drive traffic back to the original content and help promote the brands of the original content producers.

"Nobody ever promised newspapers or any other business a lifelong purchase on their business model," said Pat Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media at American University. "Many content industry organizations that use fair use all the time have been blaming fair use for the very upsetting, total disruption in their business model."

Some media organizations that have complained about bloggers or search engines have little trouble with asserting their fair-use rights when it serves their purposes, added U.S. Representative Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat.

Rupert Murdoch, chairman and founder of News Corp., has complained that Google is crawling his news sites, while at the same time Murdoch's Fox News is being sued for copyright infringement for running a video of an interview with the late singer Michael Jackson's ex-wife.

Fox News has defended itself by claiming fair-use rights, Doyle said. "The lawsuit rebuts, saying 'Fox sanctimoniously operates unencumbered by the very copyright restrictions it seeks to impose on its competitors,'" he said. "Tough words. We’ll see where this case goes."

Several sites owned by Murdoch also link to other sites' content, Doyle noted. "Why do his own sites do it?" he said. "Because it’s useful to readers, and if it’s useful, then readers will come back to the site more often, generating ads, generating revenue and so on."

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