I was in Cape Town last weekend, speaking at the Ice Box Festival at CAPE Africa on Buitengracht Street. The coolest thing about speaking at these events is the people you meet - usually I'm speaking to activists or academics or lawyers about the new copyright logic of web 2.0. But this event was deliciously different. About 40 people once we got going, the room was filled with a set of Cape Town's bedroom musicians, aspirant filmmakers, internet gurus and digital artists. If the brains of the gathering belonged to one person, they would be holding up their head with their right hand.
Julian Jonker spoke about a real-life story of the chilling effects of copyright. He and Ralph Borland took part in the Durban Red Eye Festival on 'transformation'. Their take on the theme was to tell the story of Solomon Linda's Mbube which has been "remixed" hundreds of times (some say up to 700!) since he recorded the original in 1939. Centred around the ‘transform button’ on DJ mixing hardware that switches sound sources, Jonker and Borland took 62 versions of the song and cut them into fragments. Borland then developed a software tool called 'Morpheus' that selected bars of similar length and re-created the original version in what Jonker calls a 'celebration of the genealogy of the song' (listen here).
But when the two came back to Cape Town and someone contacted them with an offer to buy the work, they had to think very hard about whether they wanted to face the risk of being sued for copyright infringement. They had only used 2-second selections of the songs, and copyright law only forbids using a 'substantial' portion. But what does a substantial portion mean? And would the case against Disney by the Linda family mean that the local legal fraternity would hotly pursue such innocuous possible infringements?
Speaking to Jonker before the event about the Linda case (which was settled out of court) I was saying how we would, at least, have some kind of precedent for families with similar cases if it hadn’t been settled before. Jonker complained about the problems with going through court cases like this. He said that even people like Justin Nurse, who had eventually won his case in the Constitutional Court, was left pretty much broke.
The two decided not to take the risk. ‘The work,’ said Jonker, ‘is now sitting in a cardboard box under my bed.’
This story reminded me of two things about why the ‘commons’ – at least in the sphere of culture and creativity - is such a complicated concept in a place like South Africa. Fear of appropriation - coupled with an almost paranoid fear of ‘theft’ and a good dose of xenophobia and victim mentality does not go well with the kind of trust and confidence it takes to share our creativity with the world.
But, along with our demons, we also possess some traits that marry particularly well to open sharing on the internet. Being able to share a (relatively equal) stage with the world’s most popular artists on U-Tube, for example, enables the kind of collaboration almost impossible to attain for South Africans in the physical world. South Africans have always been a friendly bunch – we love going out into the world and finding ‘our place’. It is here that many musicians encapsulate the role that South Africa plays in global politics: a responsible global citizen, a moral leader and an incredibly creative society just waiting to be heard.
Every country has a particularly unique response to something like Creative Commons, and in SA, I think very big things are going to happen very soon...
Thanks Laugh It Off for the pic - you can buy some of their awesome Tshirts here.