Wednesday, April 20, 2011

4.21.11 ART ATTACK

This article originally appeared in the 4.21.11 issue of Metroland

This past October I got a call from a woman named Melanie Gold, who lived in Warwick, in Orange County. Melanie was a teacher who’d applied for and had been awarded a small county grant to commission a couple of murals to be installed on an old factory building on the main road leading into the nearby Village of Greenwood Lake. As she explained to me, all she wanted to do was spruce up the place, which was getting a little long of tooth. She had a couple artists ready to go, the building owner was all for it, and she’d checked with Town Hall that it was perfectly legal. But then the Mayor and the Village Board caught wind of it, and told Melanie that she couldn’t put up her art without their approval, despite the fact that there were no village laws about public art. There was something control-freaky going on.

That’s when Melanie called me; I think she’d heard me on VoxPop or something. She was very distraught and it was clear she wasn’t some narcissistic hipster or agitprop troublemaker—rather she was a nice lady trying to do something nice for her town, and trying to make sense of what appeared to be small-town small-minded power-mad politics. She didn’t want to be talking to me about this.

Could they do this to her? Ix-nay! Remember 15 years ago or so when the Town of Colonie tried to ban a couple big honkin’ Daniel Ben-Schmuel metal sculptures from a guy’s front yard, except the Town didn’t have a law to base the ban on? No? Well it happened, and the Town got spanked in court, bad. Melanie’s was an almost identical situation.

I really wanted to jump on this one, but couldn’t--I was staring down the barrels of three upcoming trials and couldn’t take on another pro-bono-maybe-a-contingency-someday kind of case, no matter how noble the cause, and this was about as noble as they come. But I was able to get Melanie a meeting with the fantastic folks at the New York Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and they found some lawyers at a big Manhattan firm to take the case.

Meantime, the Village, apparently fearing an art epidemic of some sort was about to break out, passed a total ban on public art in Greenwood Lake. Melanie, at this point suitably p.o.’d, went ahead and installed her paintings (nice, sedate landscapes) on the factory building anyway, and the building owner was issued a couple citations with reported fines of $25 each.

I mean really, have you ever heard of anything so pathetically petty and stupid in your whole life?

Village, meet the Manhattan lawyers. Village, meet the nation of laws, not men. Village, meet the First Amendment. A federal lawsuit was filed in February, and it didn’t take long for the Village to back down and settle. Their new little law trying to outlaw art is toast; so are the $25 citations. Melanie’s art stays up. I hope the lawyers got paid. We all win.

Moving on. YouTube this week unveiled its “Copyright School” video, which is just breathtakingly bad, dangerous in fact. Apparently, if you are accused of posting infringing material on YouTube, you now have to watch this 4 minute copyright tutorial and take a quiz before you can continue as a YouTube user.

First, this applies when a complaint (called a “take-down notice”) is filed. Even for sham notices. Maybe somebody is getting harassed with fake take-downs, or over-reaching take-downs (like Prince’s infamous take-down of a 20 second video of a baby dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy”), maybe the person gets hit with a bogus take down notice every week. Now this person, who’s entirely innocent, has to watch this insidious video (see below) and take the same test every week?

Not only is the concept nonsense, the Copyright School video itself is utter crap. It’s a silly, breezy cartoon, featuring what appears to be a lime-green feral cat in a pirate outfit, and the swarmy narrator pooh-poohs mash-ups, suggesting that “creating original works” is instead the thing to do, and actually mocks the fair use doctrine as too complex to deal with.

As Mike Masnick said over at Techdirt “[f]or a company that employs both William Patry and Fred von Lohmann, you would think that the video would be a lot better,” referring to parent company Google’s legal staff that includes the dean of fair use lawyers (Patry) and the irrepressible former lead counsel with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (von Lohmann). You got that right.

Maybe Google thinks it has to dog-and-pony the issue because of its ongoing legal battles with Big Media companies like Viacom. But it doesn’t have to spew mis-information and the worst kind of copyright absolutist dogma. Shame on Google.


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