08 May 2012

Surrender to the void

The final sequence of this Sunday's Mad Men features a puzzled Don Draper listening to the Beatles' song "Tomorrow Never Knows." He's doing this at the suggestion of his much younger wife who wants him to be more in tune with what's going on in 1966. It's an odd choice—even now, three dozen years later, it's like giving someone who wants to understand James Joyce a copy of Finnegan's Wake. In any case, it's all too much for Don, who pulls the needle.

My wife and I watch the show together and we discussed how rare it is to hear an actual Beatles recording (not a cover) as part of a soundtrack and she wondered how much the producers had to pay. Well, the answer came today in a New York Times article: $250K. Producer Matthew Weiner, interviewed in the piece, focuses on his goal of authenticity to the period: “In my heart, I operate in a realistic world because I’m producing a TV show. I never, ever think about that—‘Oh, let’s not have a song here so I can save some money.’” Of Apple Corps (the corporation that acts on behalf of the Beatles and their heirs) and their requirements, which in addition to the money included review of the story ahead of time, Weiner says:
Whatever people think, this is not about money. It never is. They are concerned about their legacy and their artistic impact.
Weiner is being charitable, and he may believe this, but I find the argument that the best way to ensure the artistic integrity of the Beatles' œuvre is to make it so only very rich people can use it specious. The song was used to great thematic effect in Mad Men, but perhaps there are any number of student filmmakers who might use it to even greater effect, not to mention dancers or mashup artists. And even if the song were used poorly—say to sell sneakers—let's say Nikes—how would that tarnish the original work unless it were cynically sold at a great price?

"Tomorrow Never Knows" is a particularly interesting song to examine from a rights perspective. It's credited to the songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney, but it was written by Lennon, or rather it was Lennon who came up with the ten or so repeated sonorous notes. The actual words were adapted from The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was co-written by Timothy Leary (among others). But the passages used are from the Bardo Tholo, an 8th Century Buddhist funerary text attributed by tradition to Padmasambhava. So who ultimately wrote the lyrics? Musically, the importance of the song is not its (barely-present) melody or its droning harmonic structure, but its use of audio loops, a technique borrowed from Stockhausen. McCartney was interested in the avant-garde approach but it was George Martin and several EMI technicians that actually got it to work. So who ultimately made the song? And which amongst them will receive a portion of the $250K?

Defenders of copyright maximalism—those who seek ever-longer copyright terms and ever-broader interpretations for what is defined as use—like to characterize copyright reform as an effort to deprive artists of what is rightfully theirs. But for those of us who look at news of absurd fees for forty-six-year-old recordings with alarm rather than amusement, it's not about getting things for free. Because ultimately the losers here aren't the two unfathomably rich corporations exchanging money—it's all the rest of us who are prohibited from using a work that was created in the first place from the culture at large.


  1. Though I agree the copyright system is broken and iterative work, sampling, remixing, etc. suffer for it, I think you miss the mark on what is the fundamental concern.

    *how would that tarnish the original work*

    The original work is the sum of the experience of those who are presented with the original work. Blast "Tomorrow Never Knows" on every other Nike/Exxon/Ford/etc commercial and all future experiences of the original work are diminished. Once I've heard a track on a half dozen commercials or used in other situations where the accompanying content is effectively garbage, the track itself takes on an approximation of that garbage.

    *it's all the rest of us who are prohibited from using a work that was created in the first place from the culture at large*

    No one is prevented from using any such work. The limitation is on commercial use. You're free to remix "Tomorrow Never Knows" in any number of countless ways.

  2. Everything more than 30-40 years old should be in the public domain. Period. Long copyright periods go against the whole point of copyright law and suppress the creation of new original work.

    dxpack may be concerned about "tarnishing" original works, but the copyright owners sure aren't. All they care about is extorting more money from the public.

  3. I would have to agree with dxpack. When Cadillac bought the rights to a Led Zepplin song, it certainly diminished it for me. In "This Note's For You", Neil Young wrote:

    Ain't singin' for Pepsi
    Ain't singin' for Coke
    I don't sing for nobody
    Makes me look like a joke
    This note's for you.

    But in the example John has provided with Mad Men, I see a difference. The song is being used to define the time period or give it a cultural reference point. And I'm sort of OK with that, as opposed to a blatant product hawk. In the end though, sometimes on any given weekend, I want to pull out the White Album on vinyl, and play it from beginning to end, because some artists do create a bigger picture with the tracks, not just a bunch of thrown-together songs. In other words, I want certain music like the Beatles to remain sacred (in some sense of that word). I don't want it used everywhere. It makes me nuts when I hear Beatles muzak in the elevator. Sorry for the rambling post here, but I guess the idea I'm trying to convey is that if music (or any other work that can be copyrighted) can stand the test of time, then I believe the author should be allowed to protect it as long as they want. It becomes a part of the fabric of our culture, and should be respected as such.