Intellectual Property: Commons or Fiefdom?

Indulge a trip down memory lane with me for a moment…

The year was 1995 and I was a wee lad of 8 years. My older brother came home with a VHS of NBA Jam: the Music Videos. The dunks, the fabulous passes, the buzzer beaters and the bloopers held me spellbound for the VHS’ tidy 50 minutes or so of its running time. What you’ve seen and heard above is the climax of the VHS. Joe Public performed their mega hit “Live and Learn” much to my delight then and now.

However, in light of reading Reclaiming Fair Use by Patricia Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi, the wizened 25-year old me has many inquisitive thoughts. Inquisitions that amazingly don’t involve Ken Norman, Duane Causwell or other luminous 1990s NBA players.

Specifically, Reclaiming Fair Use piqued my curiosity when it recalled the Sony Betamax VCR back in the 1980s. This VCR had the ability to record TV shows and allow viewers to “time shift” when they watched the Cosby Show and other delights of the 1980s. Incredulous, media companies sued to have the Betamax¬†banned since it allowed for copying their copyright shows. The courts ruled against these money-grabbers, but in its ruling it laid forth an economic rationale: individuals copying the shows didn’t cut into the market share of the show creators.

Well, this got me wondering. What exactly are these companies creating? When my family bought that NBA Jam video in 1995 what were we actually buying? Was it the right to view those NBA highlights whenever we wanted? Or did we already possess that right? So instead, were we buying the convenience of already having highlights selected and packaged in VHS form?

Furthermore, that Joe Public song used is laced with a litany of music samples. I can identify three quite clearly: 1) James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into, Get Involved”, 2) Steely Dan’s “Peg”, and 3) “The Grunt” by the J.B.’s.

The last of those songs itself is built upon an older Isley Brothers song called “Keep on Doin‘”.

Just looking at this music video reveals just how interdependent culture is. Nothing is ever truly new or original. It stands on the shoulders of the work of others and in the process reveals that intellectual property is in reality a common field of creativity and not a fiefdom of originality.

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