By Thomas Goetz
By nature, musicians are thieves. Nicking a bit of this song and a lick from that one, shaping their style on the riffs of those who came before, musicians are experts in the art of acquisition. Woody Guthrie knew this; he pinched melodies from Leadbelly - and let anybody pinch him in return. The Sex Pistols knew this; they shamelessly lifted from the New York Dolls and ABBA (yes, ABBA) and set off a teenage riot. And James Brown knows this; he accrued a large debt to Little Richard - only to become the most sampled man in showbiz, with thousands of his grunts and bridges and beats pilfered by lesser men.
But what some call theft, others call sharing. Thanks to sharing, there are genre-bending artists like Beck and Prince, the mash-up legacy of Jay Z's Black Album, and the sublime delight of Walter Murphy's "A Fifth of Beethoven."
At root, sharing and stealing music start from the same impulse: Cribbing is creation. Building on what other musicians have done - with or without their blessing or collaboration - is what it takes to make new music, music that will delight and sustain people. That, after all, is why it's called making music (playing music is something else altogether). Elvis Presley, that pioneer of appropriation, put it best: "Fair exchange bears no robbery, and the whole world will know that it's true. If you wanna be hugged, well, you gotta hug me too."
In the interest of more fair exchange, we present The Wired CD.
It is, in a sense, a concept album. But unlike Ziggy Stardust or OK Computer, the concept isn't in the music, though the songs are pretty great. It's in the fine print. All the songs come with a license that gives you permission to do more than just listen to them. You can swap them. You can sample them. You can use them to fuel your own creative impulses, without worrying that the copyright cops will beat down your door.
The licenses come from Creative Commons, the innovative nonprofit founded by Wired columnist and Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig. The songs on this CD use one of two Creative Commons licenses. The Noncommercial Sampling Plus license permits noncommercial file-sharing and noncommercial sampling. That means, first, that you can swap the songs on a peer-to-peer network (just don't sell them). And second, that you can sample from them, mash them up, use them to make something fresh - and then share that work, too (though again, you can't sell it). The Beastie Boys, Chuck D, and My Morning Jacket opted for the Noncommercial Sampling Plus license.
The other 13 artists on the CD went a step further and released their songs under the more expansive Sampling Plus license. Like the noncommercial version, it allows file-sharing. But it also allows commercial use of samples - meaning you can insert a slice of these songs into your own composition and then try to sell the new track. The only restrictions: Use in advertisements is not permitted, and the new work must be "highly transformative" of the original (translation: A flagrant rip-off like "Ice Ice Baby" doesn't cut it). More details on the licenses and their permissions are available at creativecommons.org/wired.
When we embarked on this project, we knew exactly what we were stepping into: the fight over copyright, perhaps the most polarizing and contentious dispute in today's entertainment industries. Because of copyright issues, the music industry has become a business on the brink of collapse, waging an unwinnable war against technology. Every day, millions of music fans thumb their noses at record labels and exploit digital tech for all it's worth, willfully swapping and - we'll say it - stealing music. In response, the Recording Industry Association of America has deployed an army of lawyers, initiating copyright infringement lawsuits against 5,400 file sharers (and counting) and lobbying Congress to boost penalties against both the scofflaws and the technologies they use (which looks to us like a doomed attempt to outlaw Moore's law).
We're not here to argue which party is more at fault. We simply realize that there's no long term in this scenario; there's just a slow decline.
Creative Commons is trying to find a middle ground. In the past two years, the nonprofit has created around a dozen licenses that let artists open their work to others. CC licenses give musicians - as well as authors, designers, and other creators - a flexible, opt-in licensing system, letting them determine what secondary uses are allowed and under what conditions. Work released under a CC license grants before-the-fact permission, so that another musician or artist doesn't have to call a lawyer before building on or sharing a licensed work. It's a some-rights-reserved approach, versus the old analog-age standard of all rights reserved. It's copyright for the 21st century.
At root, Creative Commons is simply codifying what modern culture has already decided it wants to be: a hybrid nation of explicit influences, generous borrowings, and inside references. It's a remix culture, a layer-upon-layer construction that lets us marvel at Tarantino's Hong Kong homages, delight in the Dean Scream, and wink at phantom edits.
Trace this back and you end up in all sorts of places - Graceland or Negativland or Hip Hop Nation. Wherever it began, somewhere along the way a culture was born, one that put the gesture of borrowing front and center in the work. And when digital technology came along, making it that much easier to cut and paste and share and swap - well, then that was something.
Of course, this was also where the problems started. Because culture isn't just art - culture is also commerce. That's what makes the system so powerful; it gives creators incentives to create, the chance to make a living doing this stuff. But that impulse to own doesn't always square with the impulse to create. The conflict is, in many ways, an essential one. It encourages artists to take inspiration from others but also to protect those things that are theirs.
If for decades a clumsy sort of balance existed between these values, that's no longer the case. Threatened by the ease of digital reproduction, many owners of intellectual property (a term unknown in popular discourse as recently as a decade ago) head to court to protect their assets, none more aggressively than chieftains of the music industry. In that world, culture comes with a price tag - and, increasingly, with digital rights management, too.
But it doesn't have to. Why shouldn't there be an easy way for people who want to share their stuff - and an easy way for people who want to create? Why shouldn't it be easy for anyone to use a CC license? And why shouldn't it be easy for Wired to put out a CD to test just how powerful this remix culture might be?
It wasn't easy. When we started a full year ago, we thought we'd just reach out to some favorite bands and musicians, explain the idea, and make it happen.
So we made a few calls. Some artists got the idea and signed on in a flash, inspiring others to do so, too (thanks again, Mr. Byrne). Others came tantalizingly close, only to drop out at the last moment (maybe next time, Mr. Z). After reaching out to 20 acts, then 30, and finally 50, navigating the dicey obstacles of label politics, legal exposure, and lost revenue, only the bravest coughed up a song (we're still waiting for that track, Mr. Moby). In the end, we got through to 16 wonderful artists who contributed brilliant material.
Admittedly the acts have something to gain. With three-quarters of a million copies of The Wired CD out there, surely some of you will decide to buy the new Le Tigre album or the Paul Westerberg back catalog. (You'll be the better for it.) But don't dismiss their participation as simply self-serving. The artists on this CD have boldly decided to put their work at risk, to offer it up free of charge, to give blanket permissions ahead of the fact to anyone who wants to build on it. As far as we can tell, this is the first time so many major artists have actively encouraged their audience to make something from their music.
So what happens now? For starters, every song on this disc can be shared, meaning that Kazaa, LimeWire, and Morpheus are all fair territory. That's shared, not sold: Commercial exchange of all songs is prohibited, so any copies of The Wired CD for sale on 8th Street are just as illegal as that bootleg of Team America.
What's more, these songs can be sampled, mashed up, and then released noncommercially - meaning by the time you read this, there could already be some interesting riffs of "Now Get Busy" floating around on personal Web sites, free for the listening.
And for those artists who are allowing commercial sampling, even more is in store. New songs that use a morsel from a Sampling Plus-licensed tune can be sold, meaning that 50 Cent is free to loop a lick from the Matmos track into his next single and see it soar to number one. What would Matmos get? No remuneration, just the simple satisfaction of being the first ambient duo to be sampled at the top of the charts.
Unlikely? Who knows. The very uncertainty of what will happen to these songs - what they may become, who might remold them - makes it a grand experiment. In an industry notorious for locking down every piece of copper it can (in the hope it turns into gold or platinum), this CD could signal the start of a different approach: Give up a little to get back a lot.
So here are 16 songs that encourage people to play with their tunes, not just play them. Sixteen artists who recognize that digital culture can be an advantage, not a threat. By contributing a track to The Wired CD, these musicians acknowledge that for an art form to thrive, it needs to be open, fluid, and alive. They have made the simple statement that when it comes to copyright, they are pro-choice. These artists - and soon, perhaps, many more like them - would rather have people share their work than steal it.