Monday, December 05, 2011
While My (Favorite Beatles Song) Gently Weeps
The voting is done and the world has (or 264 entities voting in unique user sessions have) selected the songs for "The Tighter" White Album (hereinafter TWA). The survey invited voters to make pairwise comparisons between two Beatles songs, under the premise that one could be kept, and one would be cut.
There are several copyright-related implications of my experiment, and I wanted to unpack a few of them. Today, my thoughts on the potential authorship and ownership of the list itself. Tomorrow, a few thoughts on moral rights, whether I’ve done something wrong, and whether what I've done is actionable. [Edited to add hyperlink to Part II]
But first, the results -- An album's worth of music (two sides no longer than 24:25 each, the length of Side Four of the original), ranked from strongest to weakest:
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Back in the USSR
Happiness is a Warm Gun
I'm So Tired
Mother Nature's Son
Cry Baby Cry
How did the voters do? Very well, by my estimation. I was pleasantly surprised by the balance. McCartney and Lennon each sang (which by this point in their career was a strong signal of primary authorship) 12 of the 30 tracks, and each had 7 selections on the TWA. (John also wrote "Good Night," which was sung by Ringo and overproduced at Paul's behest, so I think it can be safely cabined.) Only one of George Harrison's four compositions, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," made the cut, but was the strongest finalist. Ringo's "Don't Pass Me By," no critical darling, did poorly in the final assessment.*
It's possible, although highly unlikely in this instance, that the list of songs is copyrightable expression. As a matter of black letter law, one who compiles other copyrighted works may secure copyright protection in the
collection and assembiling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected, coordinated, or arranged in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work of authorship.
Protection only extends to the material contributed by the author. The Second Circuit has found copyrightable expression in the exercise of judgment as expressed in a prediction about the price of used cars over the next six months, even where the prediction was striving to map as close as possible to the actual value of cars in those markets. Other Second Circuit cases recognize copyright protection in the selection of terms of venery -- labels for groups of animals (e.g., a pride of lions) and in the selection of nine pitching statistics from among scores of potential stats. In each of these cases, there was some judgment exercised about what to include or what not to include.
In this case, I proposed the question, put together the survey, monitored the queue, and recruited respondents through various channels. The voting, however, was actually done by multiple individuals selecting between pairs of songs. It's difficult to paint that as a "work of authorship" in any traditional sense of the phrase. I set up the experiment and then cut it loose. I could have made my own list (and have, but I won't bore you with that), and that list would have been my own work of authorship. This seems like something different, because I'm not making any independent judgment (other than the decision to limit the length of the TWA to twice the length of the longest side of the White Album).
Let's assume for a moment that there is protectable expression, even though I crowdsourced the selection process. Could it be that all 246 voters are joint authors with me in this work? It seems unlikely. The black letter test asks (1) whether we all intended our independent, copyrightable contributions to merge into an inseparable whole, and (2) whether we intended everyone to be a co-author. It's hard to call an individual vote between two songs a separately copyrightable contribution, even with the prompt: "The Beatles' White Album might have been stronger with fewer songs. Which song would you keep?" By atomizing the decision, I might be insulated from claims that individual voters are co-authors of the final list, although I suggested that there was something cooperative about this event in my description of the vote:
We’re crowdsourcing a “Tighter White Album.” Some say the White Album would have been better if it was shorter, which requires cutting some songs. Together, we can work it out. For each pair, vote for the song you would keep. Vote early and often, and share this with your friends. The voting will go through the end of November.
Still, to the extent they took seriously my admonitions, the readers were endeavoring to decide which of the two songs presented belonged on the TWA, whatever the factors that played into the decision. Might that choice also be protected in individual opinions sorted in a certain fashion? This really only matters if I make money from the proposed TWA. I would then need to make an accounting to my joint authors. And even if the vote itself was copyrightable expression, the voter likely granted me an implied license to include it in my final tally.
Should I have copyright protection in this list? Copyright protection is arguably granted to give authors (term of art) the incentive to create expressive works. I didn't need copyright protection as an incentive: I ran the survey so that I could talk about the results (and to satify my own curiosity). And my purposes are served if others take the results and run with them (although I would prefer to be attributed). Maybe no one else needs copyright protection, either, as lists ranking Beatles songs abound on the internet. Rolling Stone magazine has built a cottage industry on ranking and reranking the popular music output of the last 60 years, but uses its archives of rankings as an incentive to pay for a subscription. If the rankings didn't sell, magazines would likely do something else.
As an alternative, Rolling Stone might also arguably benefit from common law protection against the misappropriation of hot news, granted by the Supreme Court in INS v. AP, which would provide narrow injunctive relief to allow it to sell its news before others can copy without permission. The magazine might have trouble with recent precedent from the 2d Circuit which held that making the news does not qualify for hot news protection, although reporting the news might. So if I reproduce Rolling Stone's list (breaking news: Rolling Stone prefers Sonic Youth to Brittany Spears), that might fall outside of hot news misappropriation, although perhaps not outside of copyright protection itself.
*Two personal reflections: (1) I am astounded that Honey Pie didn't make the cut. Perhaps voters confused it with Wild Honey Pie, which probably deserved its lowest ranking. (2) I sing Good Night to my five-year old each night as a lullaby, and my world would be different without it. That is the inherent danger in a project like mine, and those who criticize the very idea that the White Album would have been the better had it been shorter can marshall my own anecdotal evidence in support of their skepticism.
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It should have been a single, with "While My Guitar" on side A and "Yer Blues" on B.
Posted by: Sam | Dec 5, 2011 7:57:01 PM