It wasn't so long ago that Apple Computer encouraged us all to "Rip. Mix. Burn."
Now the Beastie Boys, David Byrne and other artists have issued "The Wired CD ," a compilation of new music that invites listeners to "Rip. Sample. Mash. Share." That's the kind of musical experimentation that could get you slapped with a lawsuit.
But have no fear. The CD, distributed with the November issue of Wired magazine, is the first to be issued under a new type of license. Called the Creative Commons, it is the brainchild of Stanford Law School Professor Lawrence Lessig.
The artists on the disc have agreed to give music lovers the freedom to transfer the songs to their computers, distribute them over Internet file-swapping networks like Kazaa, and even sample the rhythms and hooks to create their own compositions. The only thing you can't do is use them in commercials or, in a handful of instances, a song you plan to release.
It's the boldest experiment yet in trying to catalyze support for copyrights compatible with the digital reality of the 21st Century.
"The Wired CD" is attracting notice, in part, because the magazine won support from some of the best-known names in contemporary music.
Former Talking Heads lead singer Byrne, who contributed a track called "My Fair Lady" to the disc, said Internet file-sharing networks are akin to cultural libraries, repositories for the world's music.
"When you take away that stuff and say, 'No, we own this. You can't have it unless you're ready to pay for it,' ... it basically cuts the whole culture off at the knees," Byrne said.
Former Public Enemy bass player Brian Hardgroove agrees: "I'm proud to be part of this."
"We're talking about letting people get creative and getting lawyers out of the way from slowing things down," added Hardgroove, co-founder of Fine Arts Militia, which collaborated with Chuck D on a song for "The Wired CD."
Listeners have been quick to embrace their new license, posting songs from "The Wired CD" on file-swapping networks including LimeWire.
San Francisco-based Wired is using its influence and distribution network to advance Creative Commons beyond the arcane world of intellectual property rights and into the mainstream. "The magazine has always been about putting big ideas out in the public sphere, trying to reflect the forefront of where the digital world and digital industries are going," said Wired articles editor Thomas Goetz, who spent a year assembling "The Wired CD."
Goetz approached nearly 50 artists and their managers directly with the idea for publishing music under a Creative Commons license. He was asking a lot. Wired wanted an exclusive, original song to ensure a successful CD worthy of other musical concept albums, such as Radiohead's "OK Computer." And he wanted the artists, their managers and their labels to agree to an unconventional set of rules that would allow their song to be freely distributed and potentially sampled in another composition they might not like.
Some artists, notably Byrne and former Replacements singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg, embraced the concept immediately. Others, including Moby, declined. Said Creative Commons' assistant director Neeru Pharia: "The broader goal of Creative Commons is to make it easy for people to build upon and share content with each other."
Hardgroove said the Creative Commons license allows artists to authorize the use of audio samples up front. It restores creative control to the artists and keeps lawyers at bay. Other musicians view the Creative Commons rules as providing a way for the industry to embrace the irresistible force that is file-sharing.
Mitch Bainwol, chairman and chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, acknowledged he isn't all that familiar with the Creative Commons licenses. But he said the experiment is consistent with what the industry has been fighting for all along: artist control.
"As long as it's choice," said Bainwol. "We object to people taking without an artist making a choice."