copyright follies

planet simpson details the licensing woes he underwent in writing a book about The Simpsons. the problems were not with The Simpsons, but with the use of a few of Radiohead’s lyrics. Not to blame radiohead but their licensing apparatus.

edited version telling the information-travels & copyright-follies portions of the story — read the whole thing straight from the author with all the Radiohead anecdotal material.

Me & Radiohead & The (Necessary?) Evils Of Copyright

I have here on my desk a photocopy of a “licence agreement” between my agent and one David C. Olsen, Director/Business Affairs, Warner Bros. Publications U.S. Inc., Miami, Florida. This document grants me “the non-exclusive right to print, publish, distribute and sell at [my] sole cost and expense” the lyrics from an attached schedule of “copyrighted musical composition(s).” Namely: the songs “The Bends,” “Idioteque,” and “I Might Be Wrong,” all by Radiohead. The cost of securing these rights was “the sum of THREE HUNDRED FIFTY ($350.00) dollars, payable in US funds,” plus “one (1) gratis copy of any publication in which the composition is utilized.”

Which is to say: I paid $350 (in US funds) to use a handful of quotes from Radiohead songs in my book.

There are several odd things about the whole rigamarole that surrounded procuring this license agreement:

1) I was not required to fork over a single dime to quote from The Simpsons itself, nor to quote at length from Tony Hendra’s excellent book Going Too Far, nor to quote from Foucault or Mark Twain or David Foster Wallace. But to use 87 words from the collected lyrics of Radiohead? Three hundred and fifty simoleons. Roughly $4.02 per word. (Which, incidentally, is more than double the highest amount I’ve ever been paid per word to write for a magazine or newspaper.)

2) Specifically, I paid to quote from “The Bends,” and indeed I do – three lines of lyrics, 22 words total, as one half of the epigraph on the title page of my book’s Introduction. I paid to quote from “Idioteque,” and you’ll find 24 words from the song on page 208 of my book. And I paid to quote from “I Might Be Wrong,” and lo and behold you’ll find nine lines (41 words) from the song on page 220 of my book, pursuant to a discussion of Lisa Simpson’s symbolic connections with the left-wing activism of recent years.

On page 219, however, there are 15 words from “Karma Police,” five from “Paranoid Android,” and 18 from “Subterranean Homesick Alien.” Total cost: zero, zilch, nada. Which means either a) you can quote from the Radiohead album OK Computer free of cost but not from other Radiohead albums, or else b) there is some threshold crossed between 18 and 21 words of citation (20 perhaps?) at which point citing Radiohead lyrics legally transforms from free-of-cost “fair use”/”fair comment” to use of copyrighted material requiring a licensing fee of $4.02 per word. I dunno which it is.

3) Perhaps the oddest thing about the situation: of all the TV shows and movies and books and rock & roll songs I discuss in Planet Simpson (a vast, vast, vast number), the only artists I’ve met personally are Radiohead. In other words, I’ve had to pay to discuss the work of the only people cited in the book who, in theory, I actually could’ve asked in person for permission to use their work.

… [How the writer ran into and was hanging out with Radiohead]

Okay. Here comes what was, from my perspective, the coolest part: It just so happened that I’d stopped by the Shift magazine office earlier that day to pick up a few copies of the new issue, hot off the press. And that issue just happened to contain my cover essay “Why Technology Is Failing Us (And How We Can Fix It),” which moreover just happened to be probably the best piece of magazine writing I’d done to that point (and would go on to win the President’s Medal for Best Canadian Magazine Article at the 2001 National Magazine Awards). So of course I gave copies of the magazine to Jonny and Thom and the two managers.

Fast-forward to the next night, Molson Park, Barrie. Radiohead’s on stage. (This was the first and to-date only time that I’ve had backstage passes for a major rock concert, so I was just all kinds of giddy at this point.) Thom Yorke introduces “Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box” thusly: “This is for all the people who sit in traffic all day trying to get to and from work. Sitting, listening to the radio, thinking: ‘How the fuck is the global economy helping me, exactly?'” It strikes me that this sounds a bit like a passage in my Shift essay in which I describe the traffic jams on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley, the information-economy revolutionaries idling in their cars under smoggy skies. Later on, Thom cites a statistic about the size of the hole in the ozone layer that’s unquestionably lifted directly from my essay. I’m delighted, of course.

… Shortly after we took a seat in the meet-and-greet tent, Thom Yorke extricated himself from a gaggle of fans to come over and mention that he loved the essay, that he thought I should try to place it in a British magazine, and that he wanted to talk more about it onstage but didn’t want to carry on too long. …

Later, I gathered from the notes at a few Radiohead fansites that Thom Yorke continued to make onstage reference to the environmental-disaster stuff in my essay for the next couple weeks.

So then: I’m reasonably sure, indeed almost certain, that the members of Radiohead who actually wrote the songs I cited in my book would’ve happily allowed me to quote from them free of charge. But this was simply not an option. Instead, the enormous corporate apparatus of big-time music and big-time publishing churned out a standard-issue license agreement, and I footed the bill. My intentions as a writer – i.e. to use the song’s lyrics to help reinforce an argument that’s quite consistent with Radiohead’s own stated beliefs – was irrelevant. That I as a person kind of knew the guys in the band – also irrelevant. That the members of Radiohead as people surely didn’t need the money, would most likely have wished me well in my work, and are avowedly anti-corporate and thus probably opposed to the usurious rates I was charged to quote from their songs – also irrelevant.

This is what’s so ass-backwards about the way copyright is (over)protected in our culture. And this is but one of a million stories about the “business” of music that reveals the size of the lie when the corporate side of music claims to be the defender of the rights and interests of musicians. $350.00 US. Sheesh.