Love and Theft

"That actress...was a thief," declared Howard Stringer, Sony's top American executive, at a New Yorker Magazine breakfast last month. "She should have adopted the Internet defense: 'I was downloading music in the morning, downloading movies in the afternoon and then I thought I'd rustle a few dresses out of the local department store...and all of a sudden, I'm arrested. How is that fair?'"
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"That actress...was a thief," declared Howard Stringer, Sony's top American executive, at a New Yorker Magazine breakfast last month. "She should have adopted the Internet defense: 'I was downloading music in the morning, downloading movies in the afternoon and then I thought I'd rustle a few dresses out of the local department store...and all of a sudden, I'm arrested. How is that fair?'"

A few days later, the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story suggesting that one of Sony's top recording artists, Bob Dylan, had "lifted" some lyrics for his most recent studio album, Love and Theft, released on Sony's Columbia label.

The Journal said Dylan had used about a dozen unattributed passages from an obscure oral history of a Japanese gangster written by a 62-year-old physician named Junichi Saga. Dr. Saga, far from upset over Bob Dylan's use of his text, said he was delighted by the artist's attention and hopes it will help sell his virtually unknown book.

Unlike similar episodes with historians Doris Kearns Goodwin or the late Richard Ambrose, much of the world's press has come to the defense of Dylan, one of the world's most celebrated singer-songwriters. The difference in the Dylan case is confusing to many, and has been further fogged by media industry propaganda in the tug of war of what is and isn't legitimate use of the Internet.

It's interesting to note that so far the usually talkative Mr. Stringer has remained mum about the Dylan situation, as has the entire recording industry posse that's hard at work threatening kids who download free music. Perhaps they'd gain some much-needed credibility if they addressed the subject head-on.

The organized commercial recording industry -- enabled by cheap, salable recording media -- has existed for less than 100 years. Before that people sang and performed for each other. Folk singer Pete Seeger has called the oral tradition of constantly learning and revising songs "the folk process." The constant variations of songs were passed from artist to artist and finally refined to versions that lived on through the ages. Today, lawyers call that copyright infringement.

Seeger's "folk process" is a bigger threat to the music industry than Internet freeloaders seeking a song. In fact, perhaps more than any other media, the Internet's sharing capability has brought a return to this oral tradition of trading and revising words and music. Thus, we witness the harsh fight by large corporations to retain control of the sale and distribution of their recordings.

Those who appreciate Bob Dylan's work flash a knowing smile when confronted with the Wall Street Journal's revelations. "Bob Dylan often walks a fine line between plagiarism and allusion, and therein lies his genius," wrote Geoff McMaster in a recent article on Dylan's work.

In fact, said Dr. Stephen Scobie, a Dylan biographer and former University of Alberta professor, noted that another song on Love and Theft- titled High Water (for Charley Patton)-included more than a dozen quotations from sources as varied as English Nursery Rhymes, African-American Blues, an obscure 1950s pop song, and even Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. In some instances, whole lines and even couplets are lifted verbatim from the source.

"Dylan takes the whole idea of love and theft very seriously," said Scobie. "He loves the stuff, but also unashamedly steals it. At what point does allusion become quotation or become theft?"

Don't confuse Dylan's art with a historian's work, warned Jon Pareles, a music critic for the New York Times. "Mr. Dylan was not purporting to present original research on the culture of yakuza, the Japanese gangsters. Nor was he setting unbroken stretches of the (Saga) book to music...He was simply doing what he has always done: writing songs that are information collages. Allusions and memories, fragments of dialogue and nuggets of tradition have always been part of Mr. Dylan's songs, all stitched together like crazy quilts."

Sometimes Dylan cites his sources, wrote Pareles, but more often he does not. The music critic groups Dylan with performers such as Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family, who "thought of themselves as part of a folk process, dipping into a shared cultural heritage in ways that speak to the moment."

Pareles muses that the hoopla over Dylan's use of Dr. Saga's book is "a symptom of a growing misunderstanding about culture's ownership and evolution, a misunderstanding that has accelerated as humanity's oral tradition migrates to the Internet. Ideas aren't meant to be carved in stone and left inviolate; they're meant to stimulate the next idea and the next."

Not so, argue America's major media companies, who fear a day when they won't be able to profit from music, movies and even digital television programming. Thus, the conflict between digital information technology -- where the shared cultural heritage becomes more accessible -- and the media company gatekeepers who want to place roadblocks in the way of open access.

WHAT'S FAIR?

At stake in this dispute is the right of "fair use," a legal doctrine that allows limited use of copyrighted material without payment. Also in jeopardy is "public domain," the period after copyright expiration when works can be freely copied and distributed. Both are essential components to artistic freedom.

"The absolutely original artist is an extremely rare and possibly imaginary creature, living in some isolated habitat where no previous works or traditions have left any impression," wrote Pareles. "Like virtually every artist, Mr. Dylan carries on a continuing conversation with the past. He's reacting to all that culture and history offer, not pretending they don't exist. Admiration and iconoclasm, argument and extension, emulation and mockery-that's how individual artists and the arts themselves evolve."

Personally, I hope to ask Sony's Howard Stringer to expound a little more on the differences between Internet "thieves" and Love and Theft. If that day comes, we'll report back to you.