Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Is the use "commercial" if you ask for a donation in return?

Girl Talk's "Feed the Animals" is the latest product from Illegal Art that raises the question, posed by the N&VR Journal: "at what point does sampling end, and a new creation with a new 'songwriter' begin?" It's a question posed again and again by musical collage. It is not, as this blog again and again points out, a position that is "anti-copyright." Rather, as Illegal Art's founder, Philo T. Farnsworth, explains:
I should clarify that we are and we aren't anti-copyright. We're against copyright law when it impedes an artist's ability to interact with pre-existing recordings. We're not against copyright protecting artists from someone copying their material and selling it without compensating them.
But, as we all know by now, whether the use of copyrighted material is a fair use requires a holistic consideration of four factors, including the purpose and character of the use, which itself includes a consideration whether the use is commercial or not. "Feed the Animals" raises a question with respect to this factor I have never encountered before: is the use a commercial one if the creator, instead of selling the product, offers it along with a request for a donation? Illegal Art will allow you to download "Feed the Animals" without donating anything; I did so. That's no sale. Under basic contract law, therefore, this deal is no "contract": one can obtain the album without giving or promising anything in return.

Of course, whether a use is commercial is only one factor among many in determining whether it is a fair use; it is not even the entirety of the "nature of the use" factor. But the fact Illegal Art will give away the product for nothing does weigh in favor of its legality.

And, like the video discussed yesterday, the album is there, available on the internet, as yet unchallenged by any of the owners of the material appropriated by it. There is always that vast amount of human behavior that may or may not be illegal but still happens in a relatively unimpeded way. There also too is a vast amount of copyright overclaiming by copyright holders that use there economic weight to stop practices that would, if fought for, be upheld. Law is not always the answer to our questions, particularly when we are dealing, as we are, with a material reality that has changed and is changing as radically as the material reality of information in the digital age.

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