Backwash

Lawyers rock and roll.

So far, it's been a busy, not to mention fruitful, year for America's entertainment lawyers, a group that is probably alone in its enjoyment of the current climate of squabbling -- and litigation -- over music-ownership issues (cocaine dealers the world over are probably already scrambling to fill orders in time for Christmas). In the past year, the music industry has seen so much legal wrangling that some people who formerly had problems following an episode of The Practice (or Night Court, for that matter) might now have some working knowledge of how laws are made, sometimes broken and sometimes amended. (Oh, wait -- wasn't that covered in the Schoolhouse Rock series?)

Napster -- a word formerly known only to computer-savvy music geeks and parents of small children -- has become a household name because of its wee conflict with the Recording Industry Association of America. The fate of the Web site will probably be determined this fall by a judge in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. Most likely, the file-sharing service will be forced to cease its current primary operation and will continue in a limited and legitimate (ie., RIAA-approved) capacity, presumably as a promotional and distributive conduit for labels with whom the site makes deals, exclusive or otherwise. MP3.com, a similar service that is still reeling from a whopper of a judgment (somewhere in the vicinity of $150 mil) awarded to the Universal Music Group last month, has been forced to give in and play nice with the major labels, though some suspect the site will inevitably curl up in a digital ball and die.

Meanwhile, some artists seem to be begging their own labels' legal teams to come after them with open wallets and raised fists; most recently, Offspring tried to follow the lead of Smashing Pumpkins by offering its new disc, Conspiracy of One, for free download through its Web site (offpsring.com), to which Sony promptly replied: "Nice try for a white guy" (and threatened to file an injunction and restraining order against the band). The 'Spring has reconsidered the tactic. (The Pumpkins, incidentally, weren't the first major recording artists to invite a breach-of-contract suit; The The's Matt Johnson took the liberty of releasing his new CD, NakedSelf, for free through his own Web site, mattjohnson.com, without obtaining a permission slip from his label, Naked, months before Billy and crew did the same.)

On the more conservative end, next week the anti-freebie coalition Artists Against Piracy will launch an aggressive print and TV campaign to raise awareness about copyright issues (no doubt thrilling the Negativland soundbite scavengers) and gain support for what is certain to be another season of suits -- of the legal, not leisure, variety. AAP's roster is proof that artists both good (Aimee Mann, DMX, Shelby Lynne) and truly sucky (Ronnie Milsap, Brian Adams) are rallying for the cause -- that is, getting paid for their work rather than sending it out into a world of endless copying possibilities.

While these celebrity-backed campaigns and high-profile cases have grabbed most of the music-centric legal limelight, a bill that's currently working its way through the ranks in ol' D.C. is actually most deserving of notice: H.R. 5107, the Work for Hire and Copyright Corrections Act of 2000, is this close to closing a loophole in a law passed last November, in which some unfortunate wording essentially spelled disaster for recording artists; as it stood, the law diminished their rights to reclaim authorship of their work in the future, essentially making it the property of whatever record company had "hired" their services. While this sort of technicality may not be the kind of cause that will inspire the kids to riot in the streets (so much for those Rage Against the Machine "Battle of Congress" T-shirts), the pending change is good news for anyone who's ever signed on the dotted line -- or who still dreams of doing so.


Locally, Jeff Bartley, president of jammingconcerts.com, has learned a thing or two about lawyers since he opened for business at the beginning of the year. Considering the nature of Stanley's business -- a multimedia Web site that cybercasts live audio and video performances of artists who appear at the Gothic Theatre -- a bright attorney is what keeps the BMI/ASCAP/ RIAA wolves at bay. "We've got a really good one," he says, laughing.

Since Bartley and his partners Steven Brown and Steve Tautz began cybercasting from the Gothic with a New Year's Show on January 1 headlined by Slim Cessna's Auto Club, Jammingconcerts.com has become a sort of dynamic library of local live performances. Though the 200-plus shows archived on the site provide a general sampling of the regional and national artists who have taken the stage at the Englewood venue this year (DJ Logic and ¡Cubanismo! are among the bigger names who have shows preserved there), the bulk of the site is, for now, devoted to local acts -- arranged alphabetically even -- from the A-Town Click to Zeut. And though it may seem that the trio is inviting copyright headaches by broadcasting songs that they don't own, a little technicality of technology has quieted potential ownership debates. Performances on jammingconcerts.com are streamed (thanks to the wonder of broadband), not uploaded, like MP3 files, which means the majority of users cannot download them. According to Bartley, artists who appear on the site have signed a comprehensive release form that outlines the terms of jammingconcerts.com's use of their material. So far, he says, nine out of ten performers sign.

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