I am not embarrassed to admit I dance and sing to myself in the car as I travel from place to place. It is a bit embarrassing when one of my youth happens to pull up next to me at a stop light and catches me getting my groove on, though clearly not embarrassing enough to stop me. One of my favorite songs to listen to right now is by a man named DJEarWorm. It’s called “United States of Pop 2010”, and he has created an absolutely astonishing and addictive song by combining the top 20 songs of 2010.
Taking 20 songs and creating a cohesive and interesting mix takes talent and dedication to your craft. It also raises lots of questions about who owns a song like United States of Pop. Does each one of those individual artists own a piece of this song? Does the DJ own the song since it is so vastly different from any one of the individual songs that he used? Is downloading and listening to this song stealing from each of the artists whose material was used in its creation or is its unique quality enough to allow for its sale?
The ideas of copyright and ownership in our technological age is becoming more and more confusing, especially for our teens. Adults and teens who seek to uphold someone’s property and not steal can find themselves in a flurry of situations where it is unclear who owns what. It is stealing to download a TV show or movie from some websites, but it is totally acceptable to watch that same content on the studio sponsored website. We see remixes and mash-ups of video, music, and movies and wonder if it’s different enough to be considered its own unique piece of property or if it is really just glorified robbery. Ideas and media can spread so quickly that they become a piece of common culture before anyone can claim credit, and then how can we begin to give them what is due to them? There are so many cases where technology and pop culture have turned black and white to gray.
Take the case of S. Victor Whitmill for example. Whitmill is the tattoo artist who designed the original facial tattoo for boxer Mike Tyson. If you have seen a picture of Mike Tyson, it would be hard to miss his unique design and it is so unique that Whitmill has filed to have the tattoo copyrighted. On April 28th he filed suit against Warner Bros. for copyright infringement and sought an injunction to stop the release of the movie The Hangover II when Warner Bros. prominently featured in the movie and in publicity the exact same facial tattoo on actor Ed Helms.
Whitmill claims the studio used his artwork without his consent and without compensation. Warner Bros. claims that the studio has every right to use the tattoo as it is a non-copyrightable piece of pop culture. They also argue that the tattoo is used not in its original form, but as a parody. The courts agreed to allow the studio to release the film because of the hardship it would cause to Warner Bros.–who has spent $80 million to market the film–and the theater owners who planned to screen the film this weekend. However, the judge did indicate that Whitmill had a strong case that may ultimately succeed.
The case raises lots of questions about copyright in our world today, and what is fair and unfair use of someone else’s material. When does a piece of pop culture become so ubiquitous that no one person can own the material? When is a parody of a tattoo, song, clip, or catch phrase fair use, and when is it breaking the law? As we struggle now to find the best way to protect our neighbor’s property while still allowing for creativity, there are a few things we can do to help our youth and ourselves.
We can pay attention to the challenges now being made and that will continue to be made in courts about copyright law and ownership. The discussions around these cases and the decisions being made will help better navigate these issues in our everyday lives. It will also help serve as the basis for what we know and understand to be fair use and stealing.
We can challenge our teens to put themselves in the place of the person who created the material. When faced with a challenging situation, look at it from the perspective of how would the person who created that song/video/movie/whatever want people to treat that property. For example, a song pirated onto YouTube to make money would rob the singer and the studio of money they deserve, but that same song remixed and parodied for a school project might be another issue entirely.
Maybe most importantly, we can have grace and open conversation when teens make the choice to cut a clip from a TV show and post it on YouTube, use someone else’s song in that school project that they put online, use someone’s material to make a remix video, or fail to credit the real owner of a picture or piece of art when they post it on Facebook. Often times they make judgments without thinking about who they might be hurting. Other times, their parents are in full support of this type of activity, and so teens struggle to know what the right thing is to do. We need to offer forgiveness and talk to them about how we as Christians should choose to respect someone else’s property.
We can purchase the music, movies, and television we know belongs to the artist and companies who create them. We search to know what is fair use and what is stealing in the eyes of the law and live lives that reflect the importance of following those laws. We can have grace for the times when we fail to live up the standards God has set for us, and search for better ways to respect our neighbor’s property.