This Tuesday, millions of eyes will be glued to the season finale of Glee — a popular musical comedy airing on Fox. Excitement is building among the show's viewership, but my own enthusiasm for Glee has recently given way to confusion over its message.
The fictional high school chorus at the center of the show has a huge problem, you see — nearly a million dollars in potential legal liability. For a show that regularly tackles thorny issues like teen pregnancy and alcohol abuse, it’s surprising that a million dollars worth of lawbreaking would go unmentioned. But it does, and week after week, those zany Glee kids rack up the potential to pay higher and higher fines.
In one recent episode, the AV Club helps cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester film a near-exact copy of Madonna’s Vogue music video (the real-life fine for copying Madonna’s original? up to $150,000). Just a few episodes later, a video of Sue dancing to Olivia Newton-John’s 1981 hit Physical is posted online (damages for recording the entirety of Physical on Sue’s camcorder: up to $300,000). And let’s not forget the glee club’s many mash-ups — songs created by mixing together two other musical pieces. Each mash-up is a “preparation of a derivative work” of the original two songs’ compositions – an action for which there is no compulsory license available, meaning (in plain English) that if the Glee kids were a real group of teenagers, they could not feasibly ask for — or hope to get — the copyright permissions they would need to make their songs, and their actions, legal under copyright law. Punishment for making each mash-up? Up to another $150,000 — times two.
The absence of any mention of copyright law in Glee illustrates a painful tension in American culture. While copyright holders assert that copyright violators are “stealing” their “property,” people everywhere are remixing and recreating artistic works for the very same reasons the Glee kids do — to learn about themselves, to become better musicians, to build relationships with friends, and to pay homage to the artists who came before them. Glee’s protagonists — and the writers who created them — see so little wrong with this behavior that the word ‘copyright’ is never even uttered.
You might be tempted to assume that this tension isn’t a big deal because copyright holders won’t go after creative kids or amateurs. But they do: In the 1990s, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) asked members of the American Camping Association, including Girl Scout troops, to pay royalties for singing copyrighted songs at camp. In 2004, the Beatles’ copyright holders tried to prevent the release of The Grey Album – a mash-up of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album — and only gave up after massive civil disobedience resulted in the album’s widespread distribution. Copyright holders even routinely demand that YouTube remove videos of kids dancing to popular music. While few copyright cases go to trial, copyright holders like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) don’t hesitate to seek stratospheric damage awards when they do, as in the Jammie Thomas-Rasset filesharing case.
These worlds don’t match. Both Glee and the RIAA can’t be right. It’s hard to imagine glee club coach Will Schuester giving his students a tough speech on how they can’t do mash-ups anymore because of copyright law (but if he did, it might make people rethink the law). Instead, copyright violations are rewarded in Glee — after Sue’s Physical video goes viral, Olivia Newton-John contacts Sue so they can film a new, improved video together.
So what should you do in real life if you and your friends, inspired by Glee, want to make a mash-up, or a new music video for a popular song? Should you just leave this creativity to the professionals, or should you become dirty, rotten copyright violators?
Current law favors copyright holders. But morally, there’s nothing wrong with singing your heart out. Remixing isn’t stealing, and copyright isn’t property. Copyright is a privilege — actually six specific privileges — granted by the government. Back in 1834, the Supreme Court decided in Wheaton v. Peters that copyrights weren’t “property” in the traditional sense of the word, but rather entitlements the government chose to create for instrumental reasons. The scope and nature of copyright protection are policy choices — choices that have grown to favor the interests of established, rent-seeking businesses instead of the public in general.
The Constitution allows Congress to pass copyright laws to “promote the progress of science” — a word often used in the 18th century to mean “knowledge”. The stated purpose of the original 1790 copyright statute was to encourage learning. So you tell me — what promotes knowledge and learning: letting people rearrange music and learn to use a video camera, or threatening new artists with $150,000 fines?
Defenders of modern copyright law will argue Congress has struck “the right balance” between copyright holders’ interests and the public good. They’ll suggest the current law is an appropriate compromise among interest groups. But by claiming the law strikes “the right balance,” what they’re really saying is that the Glee kids deserve to be on the losing side of a lawsuit. Does that sound like the right balance to you?