Download Theft! A History of Music, a New Free Graphic Novel Exploring 2,000 Years of Musical Borrowing

From the team behind the 2006 fair use comic Bound by Law comes a new fair use comic, Theft! A History of MusicCreated by James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins, two law school profs from Duke University, Theft! A History of Music is “a graphic novel laying out a 2000-year long history of musical borrowing from Plato to rap.” The book’s blurb adds:

This comic lays out 2000 years of musical history. … Again and again there have been attempts to police music; to restrict borrowing and cultural cross-fertilization. But music builds on itself. To those who think that mash-ups and sampling started with YouTube or the DJ’s turntables, it might be shocking to find that musicians have been borrowing – extensively borrowing – from each other since music began. Then why try to stop that process? The reasons varied. Philosophy, religion, politics, race – again and again, race – and law. And because music affects us so deeply, those struggles were passionate ones. They still are.

The history in this book runs from Plato to Blurred Lines and beyond. You will read about the Holy Roman Empire’s attempts to standardize religious music using the first great musical technology (notation) and the inevitable backfire of that attempt. You will read about troubadours and church composers, swapping tunes (and remarkably profane lyrics), changing both religion and music in the process. You will see diatribes against jazz for corrupting musical culture, against rock and roll for breaching the color-line. You will learn about the lawsuits that, surprisingly, shaped rap. You will read the story of some of music’s iconoclasts – from Handel and Beethoven to Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ray Charles, the British Invasion and Public Enemy.

To understand this history fully, one has to roam wider still – into musical technologies from notation to the sample deck, aesthetics, the incentive systems that got musicians paid, and law’s 250 year struggle to assimilate music, without destroying it in the process. Would jazz, soul or rock and roll be legal if they were reinvented today? We are not sure. Which as you will read, is profoundly worrying because today, more than ever, we need the arts.

All of this makes up our story. It is assuredly not the only history of music. But it is definitely a part – and a fascinating part – of that history…

Released under a Creative Commons license, the book is free to download online. Or you can buy a nice paperback version on Amazon.

The video above offers another introduction to the graphic novel. And you can read an interview with the authors over on the Creative Commons website.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

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What Is Fair Use?: A Short Introduction from the Maker of Everything is a Remix

Back in 2010, we began featuring a series of videos from filmmaker Kirby Ferguson. Called Everything is a Remix, the four-part video series explored the idea that (to quote from one of my earlier posts) “great art doesn’t come out of nowhere. Artists inevitably borrow from one another, drawing on past ideas and conventions, and then turn these materials into something beautiful and new.” That applies to musicians, filmmakers, technologists, and really anyone in a creative space.

If you would like to watch the original series in its totality, I would refer you to the video below. Above, you can now watch a new Kirby Ferguson video that delves into the concept of Fair Use–a concept defined by the Stanford Copyright and Fair Use website essentially as “any copying of copyrighted material done for a limited and ‘transformative’ purpose, such as to comment upon, criticize, or parody a copyrighted work.” They go on to say:  “Such uses can be done without permission from the copyright owner. In other words, fair use is a defense against a claim of copyright infringement. If your use qualifies as a fair use, then it would not be considered an infringement.”

Needless to say, fair use is an important concept if you’re making your own videos on Youtube, or if you’re a teacher using media in the classroom.

By the end of his short video, if you’re still not clear what Ferguson means by Fair Use, you’re in luck. He’s giving you the opportunity to submit questions to be answered by “a real live lawyer in a follow up video.” He also includes extra resources at the end of the segment.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

Robin Williams Uses His Stand-Up Comedy Genius to Deliver a 1983 Commencement Speech

Law school graduates always ask themselves the same question: after all this, what have I learned? The commencement speaker at University of California, Hastings College of Law’s class of 1983 told them exactly what they’d learned. “You’ve learned to hear at twice the speed of sound, listening to the criminal law lectures of Amy Wilson,” he said, to loud applause and laughter. And “who will ever forget professor Rudy Schlesinger? They say the man is a wonderful combination of Walter Brennan and Otto Preminger.” He then launches into not just an impression of the professor calling on one of his students, but the student as well.

Few commencement speakers can keep their audience in stitches, much less throw out a wide range of cultural references at the same time — and do all the voices. Robin Williams could, and while the students to whom he delivered the ten-minute talk above receive it as a tour de force, the rest of us can study it as an example of how to craft a speech with your audience in mind. Not only did the young San Franciscan comedian, then just out of his career-making role on Mork & Mindy, quickly establish his local credibility (at one point referring to the school as “UC Tenderloin”), he filled his remarks, swerving from high to low and dialect to dialect, with jokes only a Hastings student would get.

“‘He spent several days on campus preparing,’ remembers one alumna,” according to the video’s notes, “and offered up flawless, hilarious parodies of both students and faculty members as part of a message about the value of education and the importance of the legal system in society.” Hastings’ graduating classes get to choose their own commencement speakers, and 1983’s chose Williams with virtual unanimity. Knowing his comic persona from television, movies, and stand-up, they surely knew he’d turn up and make them laugh. But how many could have imagined that he would so handily demonstrate that knowledge is, indeed, power? All of them can now rest assured that Williams, who died two years ago today, has become the most in-demand speaker in that great San Francisco Civic Audtorium in the sky.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch “Traffic Stop,” an Emmy-Nominated, Animated Film About a Traffic Stop Gone Horribly Wrong

As the Black Lives Matter movement has come to occupy a greater swath of America’s attention span, a conversation has arisen around the pitfalls of allyship, a term that lends itself to discussions of gender and disability, as well as race.

Simply put, the self-proclaimed allies are members of a more privileged majority, eager to lend support through word and deed.

Unfortunately, their enthusiasm often turns them into microphone hogs in what activist Princess Harmony Rodriguez has referred to as “ally theater.”

A number of would-be allies confuse humility with the seeking of brownie points. If they really got it, those at the center of the movement say, they would not expect members of the minority to rearrange their to-do lists to bring them up to speed on what it’s like to be a person of color (or a transgendered person or a disabled person).

Would-be allies are therefore advised to step out of the spotlight, stuff a sock in it, and educate themselves, by working to find existing essays and narratives, authored by those with whom they would be in solidarity.

Human nature ensures that tempers will flare and hurt feelings will be aired. The horrifying social ill that gave rise to the movement—the shooting of unarmed black men by those charged with protecting the whole of the public—is elbowed offstage, so that a phenomenon such as allyship can be the number one topic of debate on college campuses, websites, and social media.

“Traffic Stop,” above, provides a rare moment of racial accord, stemming from yet another ghastly tale of police brutality.

The short animation was born of a conversation recorded by Alex Landau and Patsy Hathaway in a StoryCorps booth, a massive oral history project designed to attract a wide diversity of participants.

Landau is African-American.

His adoptive mother, Hathaway, is white.

Those who would classify adopting a child of another race as “allyship” must concede that, if so, it is certainly of no casual stripe.

The events of January 15, 2009, when Denver police stopped the 19-year-old Landau and a white friend for making an illegal left turn, caused Hathaway to rethink the colorblind worldview she had espoused while raising her son.

“I thought that love would conquer all and skin color really didn’t matter,” Hathaway tells Landau. “I had to learn the really hard way when they almost killed you.”

Had the attack happened a few years later, Landau’s friend might have managed to document the proceedings with a cell phone, despite the handcuffs that were placed on him after a bag of marijuana was found in his pocket.

Instead, this animation, and the grisly graphic photo that follows of Landau’s face prior to receiving 45 stitches, will have to suffice. His recollection of the laughter and racial epithets directed his way as he lay bleeding on the ground are stomach-churners, too.

Like his mother, Landau’s childhood perception of an all-inclusive, benevolent world was shattered. They mourned it together when they were reunited in the emergency room on the night of the ill-fated traffic stop.

Look and listen.

Then, if you are ready to wade into thornier territory, read the hundreds of comments viewers have posted on youtube.

Ultimately, the City of Denver awarded Landau a $795,000 settlement, while the Denver Police Department, citing a lack of evidence, cleared all three officers of misconduct. Follow up articles from 2011 and 2013 are available here and here.

Traffic Stop was animated by  Gina Kamentsky & Julie Zammarchi (read an interview with them here). It was recently nominated for an Emmy award last week.

via Westword

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Fight to Liberate the “Happy Birthday” Song, Told in a Short Documentary

You may have followed the story in the news lately–the song, “Happy Birthday to You,” has officially entered the public domain, thanks to a court battle fought by the documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson. The battle started years ago when Nelson was billed $1,500 to use “Happy Birthday to You” in a documentary–the price of licensing a song still under copyright. Wait, what? Flabbergasted that “the world’s most popular song,” which could be traced back to 1893, could still be under copyright, Nelson filed a class action suit against Warner/Chappell Music, the group claiming rights to “Happy Birthday.” And won.

In this new short documentary from The Guardian, Nelson tells the story of the song and her four-year struggle to give “Happy Birthday” back to the world. With a little luck, “This Land is Your Land,” will be next.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

Artist Julie Green Paints the Last Suppers of 600+ Death Row Inmates on Ceramic Plates

What would you choose for your last meal?

The comfort food of your childhood?

Or some lavish dish you never had a chance to taste?

What might your choice reveal about your race, regional origins, or economic circumstances?

Artist Julie Green developed a fascination with death row inmates’ final meals while teaching in Oklahoma, where the per capita execution rate exceeds Texas’ and condemned prisoners’ special menu requests are a matter of public record:

Fried fish fillets with red cocktail sauce from Long John Silver’s

Large pepperoni pizza with sausage and extra mushrooms and a large grape soda.

Chateaubriand steak, medium rare with A-1 steak sauce, fried shrimp entree with cocktail sauce, large baked potato with butter, sour cream, chopped scallions, bacon bits, salt and pepper, six pieces of garlic butter toast, whole Kentucky Bourbon pecan pie, one liter of Coca Cola Classic, and bag of ice

Last Meal Plate

The latter order, from April 29, 2014, was denied on the grounds that it would have exceeded the $15-per-customer max. The prisoner who’d made the request skipped his last meal in protest.

Green recreates these, and hundreds of other death row prisoners’ last suppers in cobalt blue mineral paint on carefully selected second-hand plates. The influence of Dutch Delftware and Spanish still life painting are evident in her depiction of burgers, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and pie.

Many of the requests betray a childlike poignancy:

A single honey bun (North Carolina, January 30, 1998) 

Shrimp and ice cream  (New Mexico, November 6, 2001)

 A peanut butter and jelly sandwich (Florida, February 26, 2014)

One man got permission for his mother to prepare his last meal in the prison kitchen. Another was surprised with a birthday cake after prison staff learned he had never had one before.

Some refrain from exercising their right to a special request, a choice Green documents in text. She resorts to similar tactics when a prisoner requests that his final meal be kept confidential.

Final Meal Not Made Public

Each meal Green paints is accompanied by a menu, the date, and the state in which it was served, but the prisoners and their crimes go unnamed. She has committed to producing fifty plates a year until capital punishment is abolished.

Green narrates a Last Supper slideshow above, or you can browse all the plates in the project, organized by state here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Bound by Law?: Free Comic Book Explains How Copyright Complicates Art


Let’s say you’re a filmmaker shooting a documentary in New York City. You wander through Times Square, through museums, through other destinations, letting your camera roll along the way. Only later do you wonder: Do I need to clear the copyright on the Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock paintings that came into my camera’s field of view when I was shooting at the MoMA? Or do I need to get clearance on a Miles Davis song that a busker, caught on film, happened to be playing?

Those are the difficult kinds of questions that filmmakers face, and they get sorted out in a pretty unique comic book written by Keith Aoki, James Boyle and, Jennifer Jenkins. Sponsored by Duke’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, the comic is called Bound By Law? (Tales from the Public Domain). And it’s available as a free PDF file (8mb – 16mb), in html format, and also as a flash animation. There are also translations in PortugueseFrench, and Italian. And wait, there’s more: the comic comes with a Foreword by Oscar-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, and an Introduction by BoingBoing blogger Cory Doctorow, who calls Bound by Law? not just “a treatise on copyright,” but also “a loving tribute to the form of comics.”

Bound By Law? — which has been released under a Creative Commons license — will be added to our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices. Harvard also has a MOOC on Copyright — one of 260 MOOCS getting started in January 2015.

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Kandinsky, Mondrian, Munch & Fleming Entered Public Domain in 2015 — But Welles, Achebe, and “Purple People Eater” Didn’t


As you faithful readers of Open Culture know, we love nothing more than when important works of humankind fall into the public domain. According to current United States copyright law, a work stays out of the public domain for 70 years after its author’s death; for corporate “works-for-hire,” 95 years after its publication. This means that, theoretically, new things arrive in the public domain each and every year. Since we’ve just started a new one, what has the public domain gained?

On January 1, 2015, according to Duke University’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain, public-domain readers received “the writings of Rachel Carlson, Ian Fleming, and Flannery O’Connor” — in Canada, that is. As for Europeans, they can now freely enjoy “the works of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Edvard Munch, and hundreds of others.” But what of the Americans? Alas, “no published works will enter our public domain until 2019,” owing to an extension of U.S. copyright law legislation that pushed up retroactive copyright by 95 years for anything created between 1923 and 1977 — a legal event that may, some whisper, have had the endorsement of a certain corporation in possession of a certain highly lucrative cartoon mouse.


For a sense of what this has cost us, the CSPD has put together a tantalizing list of still-vital works of literature, film, music, and science that could have gone public domain this year, if not for that meddling extension. It includes Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Simone de Beauvoir’ Mémoires d’une jeune fille rangéeGraham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, Nathan H. Juran’s Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater.”

To learn more about the art that some parts of the world have newly welcomed into the public domain, see also Hyperallergic’s Public Domain Day post by Allison Meier. Though we could easily feel frustrated by the richness of the material that America has refused, in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, to let “free as the air to common use,” do remember the existence of a little something we citizens of 2015 like to call the internet. The increasingly few boundaries and little friction with which it has enabled us to connect and communicate will certainly continue to alleviate the cramp regulations like these have put in our style. So even if Americans won’t enjoy a meaningful Public Domain Day for four years yet, I’d say we still have reason to celebrate.

via Hyperallergic

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.