Standing up for what I believe in – I Am The Walrus

J, a dear musician friend of mine, wrote to me a couple of days ago with his ambition for the week. "I am going to do a remake of I Am The Walrus," he bragged. "It'll be quite a challenge, I'm going to be using all sorts of sound effects, I'll see how it goes." I wished him luck, told him he was exceptionally brave, and wondered what would become of it.

Last night, he mailed me an MP3 file attachment, and I was so intrigued I had to go over immediately to the computer and see what he had done. Admittedly, it was a bit rough around the edges. An amateur musician, with basic home studio equipment and a keyboard… but nevertheless J had done exactly what he had set out to do. And, more than that, he had created something that had never been created before. He had entitled his e-mail "You have never heard it like this" – and he was absolutely right. His sound effects included other Beatles songs, a sample of Rod Serling giving one of his Twilight Zone introductions, and even the great Don Knotts as Barney Fife saying "you've gotta nip it in the bud". It was indeed something I had never heard before. Something old and familiar, but delivered with a fresh spin so that it became something new.

For countless centuries, that has been the way culture has been done. Every generation takes the existing culture, and builds on it, modifies it, refreshes it, and gives us an increasing return on investment. Culture is a wonderful thing. Like intelligence, sharing it doesn't deplete it; it all comes from a commons. The more we have of it, the more it enriches us all. With the technology and capabilities that we now have, things that were radical and only accessible to producers like George Martin in studios like Abbey Road are now available to more of us than ever. Most of us have easy access to sufficient technology just by using our computers. Yet, somehow, our abilities to do so are being stunted. J can never perform his recording. He can only share it privately with friends in an e-mail. He can, of course, never afford to deal with copyright law.

The irony of it all is that copyright law calls what J has done stealing. There's some implied philosophy there that because the song of another was used as part of his work, because he "took" something, that there's less of it remaining for the original author. J had only done this as a tribute, paying homage to his heroes, as a labor of love. There was never anything remotely vindictive about what he did. Any concept of theft could not be further from the truth. Yet, that's not the way the law works. It's not just music, and it's not just the Beatles, of course. Once upon a time, the Walt Disney company took the works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Things that were old, and turned them into something fresh, something different, something new, and something that suited the times. Of course, were any of us ever to do the same to Disney as Disney had previously done to the Grimms or Andersen, the outcome would be very different.

Josie over at Sleep is for the Weak posed, as one of her prompts for this week's Writing Workshop, to write about a time when I stood up for something I believe in, and what were the consequences. (I must admit, this is my second attempt at a post; I tried the "taking stock" prompt first and wasn't pleased with the results). I guess like most kids of my generation, I was falling foul of copyright law as soon as I had any appreciation of music at all. I can remember every Sunday evening, listening to the Charts countdown (during that rare spell where Radio 1 would get a hold of the FM waveband from Radio 2 for the evening – I find it humorous now that I'm definitely in the 'Radio 2" demographic now), perched on a chair in the corner of the room, hovering expectantly over the stereo with three buttons pressed in on the cassette player; play, record, and pause, waiting, just waiting, for a favorite song to come up and release the pause button with a flourish; then hoping at the other end the DJ wouldn't punch in too early before a chance to get a clean pause at the other end. (Simon Bates was terrible for that sort of thing). It occurred to me back then that yes, what I was doing was technically breaking the law; it also occurred to me that why on earth did they sell blank cassettes, then. Now all you kids these days with your digital copies and your MP3's are missing how difficult it was to 'rip' music thirty years ago. You had to plan ahead with blank cassettes and all sorts. It actually took a great deal of work, and, quite frankly, the resulting quality was awful. Perhaps that was why nobody cared too much about it; the copyright police knocking on the door seemed about as far-fetched as the other bogeyman of The UK in the 70's – the TV detector van.

It takes quite a bit more than trying to badly record a few things off the radio to really make this much of a tale about standing up for what I believed in; let's go forward quite a few years later, to my last year at college. The college alternated between lavish May Balls and somewhat more subdued June Events; and, as luck would have it, I was in one of the years that would have a June event in their first and last years there. The committee for the 1992 Event had chosen an Olympic theme; and was looking for volunteers to assist, entertain. I'm a passable keyboard player. What that means, in actuality, is I can't play to save my life, but I can program a sequencer. There was an entertainment slot available; a "chill-out room" where movies would be projected up on the wall with some accompanying music. This sounded like just the thing, and I set to work composing the music. On the night, I'd sit behind the screen with the projectionist, and as the images appeared in front of me, I'd mouse-click and punch-in and out different music and sound effects. It had the potential of being an unmitigated disaster.

Indeed, for the first pass, it was. The music was bland and generic; the odds of actually being able to synchronize anything with the experimental art-school movies and claymation reels we had seemed hopeless. By the time I made the second pass, however, things started to look considerably better. This may, perhaps have been related to the consumption of alcohol; you know, just the right amount to loosen things up a bit. The more relaxed and laid-back things became, the more smoothly everything fit together. As the evening progressed, things seemed better and better – both the performer and the crowd evidently were getting drunker and drunker. After a while, things got to the point where I thought, why not, I can play live if I want to, maybe I can spice things up a little. What I did was unquestionably a violation of copyright law. All those keyboard riffs that I'd practised over and over again in my room, in an effort to learn how to play, ended up appearing in the performance. That unmistakable horn from Pure by the Lightning Seeds; Stevie Wonder's Superstition; those artsy-fartsy pseudo-Mozart riffs that the scruffy guy with the beard from Abba would do in S.O.S and Gimme Gimme Gimme. The crowd loved it. There were howls of recognition, and a room full of people who had a WTF expression (long before the Internet had seen that expression take off) turned into a rather raucous bunch who were quite happy to make more return trips to the bar to buy more beer. The copyright police didn't show up that day, either; I'm quite sure if I hadn't have decided to do something that was technically illegal, that night would not have been a success. A few people came up that night and wanted recordings of the music; I can remember giving one of the cassettes to Crazy Alice, who caught up with me a couple of days later. "It's not the same," she bleated. "Where's all the cool bits of stuff I know?"

Tonight, I wish I could share J's creativity and expression with you; I really do. I know however that copyright law won't allow that, and that's something I will have to begrudgingly agree to. But I do worry about the state of the law, about how it stifles creativity and expression, and I'm sure art will suffer as a result. What I worry most about the law is it does not change the behavior of those who believe, in their heart of hearts, that the restrictions are wrong. Law doesn't make people behave; it makes outlaws out of common, good folks. I am going to enjoy a performance of I am the Walrus now, and one thing is certain.

You have never heard it like this. And perhaps you never will.

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About darlingman1970

Born in the UK and a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge University, Chris Nash has followed a career in software engineering which he continued after moving the United States in 1996 and now brings him to California in 2010. However, Chris does not want to be considered as merely a code monkey, and has always been interested in writing; in areas as diverse as factual technical manuals all the way through to fiction. An avid reader, Chris is a fan particularly of mystery novels and enjoys above all the works of Agatha Christie and David Hewson. Chris has recently gone through some significant life changes which, at the moment, he is considering as the basis for a forthcoming novel and as food for thought on his blog. He manages to couple his loves of writing and technology and is particularly interested in how internet innovations have an impact on the writing and promotional process. Chris is a firm supporter of Creative Commons and other 'open' initiatives and believes strongly that such distribution mechanisms are the "right" way to handle intellectual property in an evolving digital world. Chris is a keen Nintendo DS and Wii player in his spare time, and is currently happily attached, living in the Central Coast area of California. Find him on Twitter as @darlingman1970. Don't ask him how old he is.
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