Monthly Archives: June 2011

Anonymity and Piracy

Fabio Trifoni - Where the Hell is Jack Sparrow?

Fabio Trifoni, "Where the Hell is Jack Sparrow?" available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license at

There’s a great little piece over at The Chronicle of Higher Education about the piracy of academic books. The author walks us through his discovery that his scholarly book was illegally online for free, his alerting the publisher, his surprise that the publisher didn’t care too much, its suggestion that it might actually help sales, his decision to ask them to take the book down, and his subsequent uncertainty about if he made the right choice. In the pseudonymous author Clement Vincent’s words,

Even though I can claim victory in my first salvo with e-pirates, I now wonder whether engagement was a mistake. I recently checked the open seas of the Internet by typing the title of my book into browser with the words “free download,” only to discover hundreds of sites purporting to offer my book at no charge. I picked one of them randomly, and a just few clicks later, an electronic copy of my book appeared on my computer screen.

It was too easy. In my conflict with e-pirates, I’ve decided to withdraw from battle, at least for a while.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Cory Doctorow has claimed for years that he’s made huge amounts of money by licensing his novels with Creative Commons licenses that allow people to freely distribute them online. I’m also reminded of Richard Murphy’s narrative from a 1990 issue of College English about his efforts to get a student to confess to plagiarism, which she did, only to find out that she had in fact written the essay. And what’s that essay (from The New Yorker?) about a poet or novelist or someone who goes on an intense, crush-the-enemy campaign against someone who kept stealing his stuff?

So stories like Vincent’s aren’t necessarily unique, though they’re always welcome. But I was left with a lingering question after finishing the piece: why the anonymity? Why is Vincent so careful to not name himself, his university, his book, or his publisher–in other words, to make himself un-Google-able?

Maybe the answer is obvious: because he doesn’t want us to find his book online for free and pirate it. (Yahrr.) After all, it’s apparently still out there on other sites, even though he got it taken down from one.

But wait, I thought his narrative landed on the (albeit uneasy) decision to let his work float freely online in hopes that it will bring more readers and even more buyers. That feels like the aim of the article–to gently say to those who tightly hold onto their copyrights with iron fists, “Hey, have you considered that maybe loosening up would be better for you?”

Consider the power of an article like this in the Chronicle that wasn’t anonymous, that effectively invited the thousands of academics across the country, at their own risk, to Google this guy’s book and skim it on their own. Wouldn’t that almost certainly lead to more citations of his work, which would almost certainly lead to more people buying the book than currently do? Or am I assuming too much?

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What’s Fair? Untangling Copyright

Two years ago, I was assigned to make a video in a class I was taking in the instructional technology department of USF’s school of education. I decided to focus on fair use, having recently been heartily inspired by Martine Courant Rife‘s chapter “Ideas Toward a Fair Use Heuristic: Visual Rhetoric and Composition” from Steve Westbrook’s edited collection Composition and Copyright: Perspectives on Teaching, Text-Making, and Fair Use. (There’s a great synopsis of the chapter here.)

I never liked a few things about my video: the (required) moving titles at the end, the bad mic quality, some of the more cryptic image choices. I always planned to fix the thing up and get it out there, but I never got around to it.

In the meantime, I’ve noticed that I’ve found myself becoming our FYC department’s fair use champion–and I often find myself quoting Rife’s chapter in defense of the doctrine. So today I decided to compromise: I would fix the horrid end credits and a couple other minor things, ignore the big problems, and upload it to YouTube regardless. And really, after a couple years, I still liked the video more than I thought I would, and some of my gripes are probably things that I’ll notice more than others.

I hope it will be a conversation-starter, potentially even a controversial one. But we need a little controversy in our classes for the lessons to stick, right?

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Changing the Words, Changing the Context

JSmith Photo, "Jetpack On! CD Release Show 7"

Not my friend's band. JSmith Photo, "Jetpack On! CD Release Show 7," CC-BY-ND licensed, via

A brief thought that I’ve spent a number of showers thinking about lately:

A friend of mine occasionally plays cover music in a band. (They’re good.) We talked once about adjusting the lyrics of a song that you didn’t write. He was firmly against this.

(Side note: has my dissertating led me to write all these short sentences? Can a person balance the rhythm of his writing so that his long-form, multi-claused sentences are all written in one context, like the drive where you like to listen to 9-minute songs, and then his short-form, staccato, rhythmically powerful sentences are all written in another context, like the drives where you listen to a 2-minute punk song?)

(If that last sentence is any kind of proof, apparently not. Moving on.)

When I went to hear the friend play music in a bar, the show was fantastic. He also didn’t change any of the words (as far as I noticed). But what keeps gnawing at my mind is the number of things that he did change, the things that are fundamentally changed any time a cover song is played. These include:

  • Instrumentation: When you’re performing with acoustic guitar, keyboard, bass, and drums, you’re fundamentally changing the effect of a song that wasn’t originally recorded with those instruments. (That is, originally distributed in recordings with other instruments; we have no idea how the songwriter originally wrote the piece–in front of a piano, or with an accordion, squatting in front of a cheap built-in laptop mic for the first demo recording.)
  • Vocal Inflection: A cover band can’t exactly replicate the ups and downs or the timbre of the voice they’re covering–and I’d say that they generally shouldn’t try to.
  • Musical Context: The songs surrounding any song affect how we hear it, right? This hearkens back to all the conversations I’ve been hearing about mixtapes (as assignments, as metaphors) at CCCC and C&W lately. In their simplest sense, the mixtape says, “This rearrangement of songs from their published order reflects a creative control that I’m exerting.” That is, if I put the tones of Bj√∂rk’s “Frosti” just before the similarly sounding tones of Sufjan Stevens’ “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It),” I want you to hear both the sonic similarity and contemplate what it means for those song’s meanings to be butted up next to each other. In a live band context, the cover song is surrounded (almost always) with new songs, giving it new contexts and new meanings.
  • Performance Context: Doesn’t a song mean something different when we hear it pumped through bar speakers, surrounded by bar people, as opposed to hearing it come up in Winamp at my computer, or in my car, or in headphones while weeding the garden?

Change the lyrics? Why not? It’s not like anything else in the original is being delivered in the same way.

I tried to scare up a quote about music and lyrics from David Burrows’ beautifully excellent little book, Sound, Speech, and Music, but apparently I didn’t copy the quote into my Evernotes, and Google Books isn’t helping. If I remember right (and I very well might not be), he has a sentence about lyrics being fundamentally secondary to music in the ears of listeners–something that I tried to tell my parents all through middle school, but they didn’t seem to buy it.

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