The annoucement that rapper Eminem is suing Apple Computer, MTV and others because a song he wrote was used for a promotional commercial goes right to the heart of Lawrence Lessig’s March 2004 column in Wired Magazine.

Lawrence Lessig’s March 2004 column in Wired magazine (now available online) goes to the heart of questions about who gets paid for what when it comes to intellectual property. Rapper Eminem’s lawsuit against Apple, MTV, and others would seem to be frivolous under the logic Lessig explains in his article. When people get paid for music that is written and performed, permission and royalties are required and paid in many cases for public performances. The performer typically is the winner (financially) more often than the composer. While a public performance of a piece may qualify for the composer getting financially compensated, a non-public performance may not. Of course I am not a lawyer or an expert in intellectual property rights issues, although I think it is very important as an educator to stay abreast of issues in this area. That disclaimer being stated up front, it seems to me that Eminem may not have many legal legs to stand on in this case. A complicating factor of course, is what constitutes a “public” performance in our mediacentric era. The Internet particularly seems to have blurred many lines.

One of the observations I have made about our legal system is that if you have enough money, you may be able to do whatever you want. Apple and MTV are formidable legal opponents from a financial backing standpoint, so from a purely cynical perspective that “money seems to determine the law / publicly sanctioned truth” I would predict Eminem would lose.

The issues here are very important, however, and I really am not as cynical as the paragraph above might suggest. I think a big issue in cases like this, which may not always be acknowledged as it should, is greed. A lot of the lawsuits and arguments about intellectual property seem to hinge on this motivation for both corporations and individuals. Wouldn’t it be better if we approached issues like these more from a “creative commons” perspective? Of course there needs to be financial incentive for people to innovate and create, but a big part of innovation relies on the abilities of individuals to utilize the ideas of others in creating their own new syntheses. I am hoping to read Lessig’s latest publication, “Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity” and gain some more perspective on these vital issues.

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