Saturday, May 20, 2006

Intellectual Property and DePaul

The other day I was watching a movie at DePaul, about the death penalty. It was great, it raised a bunch of issues about why the Death Penalty should be abolished in the US, and was an educational tool. But some school administrators and the enforcement of a backwards-ass federal law, would make screenings like this one much more difficult at DePaul.

A new rule implemented this year was for the school and student groups to obtain licenses to show movies, licenses often costing $200 or more.

This didn’t sound right to me, so I went to speak with Tiffany Guzarde and Shannon Greybar Milliken in student life about the matter. They told me it was a federal law which they were upholding and that they weren’t necessarily happy enforcing it as it was creating a strain on the already limited Student Allocation Funding Board budget.

I explained to them that DePaul, as an educational institution, should be able to show movies under a fair use clause. I mean, most students groups aren’t screening “You Me and the Dupree”, or boot-leg copies of “Spider-man 3” while its still in theaters. They are showing documentaries, or even when it is fictional, it has an educational value.

But in the eyes of this law and the bureaucrats stuck enforcing it, this is likable to downloading movies online. They are terrified of being fined, but I asked them if DePaul had ever been fined, or threatened with being fined, and they replied, “no.”

This can be problematic in many ways. Many underground films don’t have licenses. For example a movie about the anti-World Bank/IMF protests in Prague called “Crowd Bites Wolf” has no license and no way of contacting the filmmakers to get a statement regarding it’s lake of a license.

This has to be put in the perspective of encroaching “intellectual property” laws against free speech. Consider the movie “Eyes on the Prize.” It’s considered one of the greatest documentaries of all time, documenting civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 1960’s. One of my professors at DePaul showed it and it was not only educational, but inspirational. It showed how ordinary people were risen up because of their involvement in the struggle for civil rights.

Unfortunately copyright law has hindered “Eyes on the Prize” from being broadcast on TV or issued on DVD, or even shown in public settings like my classroom. Since the documentary used archive footage, it has to pay for the right to use such footage. Imagine having to pay every time you quoted a book in an essay you wrote for class. There was a fear that it might not even be able to be rebroadcast ever again. The filmmakers had to shell out thousands of dollars to obtain temporary rights to the archival footage so they could show the film on PBS recently, but having it issued on DVD might take longer and cost more.

Hip Hop music has been pushing boundaries by sampling recordings, and many great songs have run into restrictions because of that. Consider the absurdity that musician John Fogerty had to deal with. As a member of the band Creedence Clearwater Revival he wrote a song called. “Run Through the Jungle.” He would later leave the band, and start a solo career on another record label. He would be sued by the former record label because his song, “Old Man Down the Road” sounded to much like his song “Run through the Jungle.” In other words he was being sued for sounding to much like himself! Fogerty defeated this suit, but left unchecked, intellectual property rights advocates would leave us all in a situation like this.

Another way intellectual property laws are destroying our freedoms and rights can be seen in the emergence of GMO’s or Genetically Modified Organisms. Corporations like Monsanto are copyrighting and patenting the genetic codes of plants. When they sell these GMO seeds to farmers, they have all sorts of stipulations, to guarantee that farmers are not allowed to save seeds for the next year, and essentially remain in debt to the company. As consumers, we should be worried, because we aren’t allowed to even know what we are eating, as that is a trade secret.

In the digital world we see similar problems. The next step of the record companies and their iTunes buddies in stopping file sharing is to implement Digital Rights Management or DRM. DRM is essentially software that prevents you from making copies of the CD or MP3 you legally bought. So even if you buy a song from iTunes, and want to make a back up copy on your external hard drive, just in case your computer crashes, as they often do, DRM would prevent you.

In 2005, Sony sold millions of CD’s with DRM like software which would automatically installed itself, without alerting consumers, onto their PC. This was bad enough, but it turns out the software actually opened up security holes, making innocent fans of music, victims of computer viruses.

Whats next, every time you utter “lord of the rings” or “the” you get sued? I watched a video on called “Chad Vader- day manager.” It was a funny parody, but if these copyright laws were effected fully, it would stifle that kind of parody.

Luckily there are ways people are resisting. Many artists, writers and musicians are releasing their work on Creative Commons licenses which allow the author to profit while giving users the right to copy and use the work in other ways.

To oppose the proprietary Microsoft software many computer programmers have contributed to the GNU/Linux project. In a nut shell, the software is free, anyone can download it, look at the source code and contribute their own code to the programs.

Other activists are battling this through websites like which do a number of creative protests to defend file sharing.

I suggested to Tiffany and Shannon in DePaul student life that the school get involved in resisting these copyright laws. Lobby Congress to repeal these arcane laws which prohibit students from watching documentaries with their friends. DePaul could have a large influence on this issue, and by taking the lead on it, other school would join it.

They said DePaul was to busy lobbying on student loans and other issues. Student Loans are a decent thing to lobby about, reducing the amount of interest students have to pay back would be a positive thing and would allow more students to afford a college education.

But I proposed: why doesn’t DePaul lobby Congress on the war? All the money going to build bombs and privatize Iraq could be used to build schools, here in the US and in Iraq. All the money wasted on Blackwater mercenaries and Halliburton profits could go to documentary makers to allow them to pay for archival footage, or to students who want to pay for movie licenses. Shannon didn’t like that idea.

Honestly the best thing students can do is host screenings of banned movies. Start with “Eyes on the Prize.” Let’s get 500 people together to watch it for free, then have a discussion about it, write about it and bring up examples from it in our classes. If the school or movie lawyers come after us, we have our own lawyers through the electronic frontier foundation, national lawyer’s guild and others who would gladly take the case pro-bono.

Since I started writing this, the issue has become more pertinent. Many DePaul students including Janien Hammonds, daughter of Black Student Union founder James Hammonds, are being sued for downloading music. It's likely a court battle with ensue. Students should support the students in fighting against these corporations. These corporations make billions, and yet they want $2,000 from Hammonds, just for downloading a few songs. Stay tuned to for more on what you can do to defend creative freedom.

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