"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
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I am a solitary worker in my self-employed business. I am not a corporation. I haven’t done my tax prep yet for last year, but I don’t think I earned enough to make it over the poverty line. It wasn’t a good year. But I paint pictures for my modest living, and so I enjoy copyright protection. And therefore Siva Vaidhyanathan sees me and the Walt Disney Corporation, and Warner Bros. Records, and any other copyright-holding enterprise, as identical entities. He distinguishes absolutely no difference whatsoever between us. He simply promotes the notion that all copyright holders are identically greedy and undeserving (the actual phrase used is “excesses of the copyright regimes,” but there’s no mistaking the clear import of the disparaging verbiage).
More to the point, the claim is made that the public has a free entitlement to our labors. After I’m dead, I would like to bequeath the modest benefit of my life’s work to my heirs. I’m an optimist. I have an ego. Maybe my work will become valuable one day, post mortal coil — (who knows, maybe like Vincent Van Gogh’s?). But Vaidhyanathan has vowed to fight me and my dreams, to orchestrate “public interest” groups to pressure Congress to deprive me and my heirs of the potential value my work might ever enjoy in the future, and to give that value away for free to all the people who simply want something for nothing. Something for nothing allegedly being in the “public interest.”
The whole underlying premise of Vaidhyanathan’s system of belief is that dim and unimaginative — or perhaps plain lazy — people have an entitlement to the creative labors of the folks who do paint, write books and songs, make movies. And that the creators have an obligation to give it all away. This is in the same “public interest” that endorses sweatshop labor at Nike because the public can get shoes cheaper, the same “public interest” that supports war in Iraq so we can control the oil fields so we can continue to fuel the public’s favorite gas-guzzling SUVs. The same “public interest” of the average 2-year-old who wants a cookie, dammit, and wants it NOW!!
In truth, Vaidhyanathan’s alleged “public interest” is nothing but an Orwellian description for simple “me me me” selfishness, voiced by people who want something they can’t seem to produce on their own. I have no qualms or hesitation criticizing corporate abuses. (And they certainly abuse.) But copyright is truly democratic, available to everyone, no credentials required. There are fees for formal registration, which provide added protections, but there is no obligation for anyone to pay. Once a song or painting is finished, it instantaneously belongs to the author, who henceforth enjoys copyright protection on the work. There’s one requirement only: The creative work must simply meet the test of difference from other works.
But that’s the real problem. The people for whom Vaidhyanathan speaks don’t write the music, don’t make the movies, don’t create the art. They just want to have it. For free. They want to possess it, but they want to treat it like it isn’t really worth anything at all, certainly not money. (Of course, this raises the question, if it has no value, why do they want it, and conversely, if they believe it has value, why do they feel there should be no compensation paid?) Vaidhyanathan argues that a bunch of people who go to church have an entitlement to their favorite songs and pictures (songs they didn’t write, pictures they didn’t create). Now it is a fact that church people often embrace the political activity of criticizing artists who are still alive, because they think the artwork is so bad — and yet these same church folks also find fault with the protection of artists who, after they are dead, don’t want their work given to the churchgoers for free. No credit to the artist while alive, no credit when dead. And Vaidhyanathan thinks this is the ground floor of a winning argument.
But why do the church people to whom Vaidhyanathan refers need to steal from dead songwriters and cartoonists? Are they so totally devoid of creative imagination that they can’t make up a few songs of their own to sing, a few of their own characters to paint on a wall? And why do the conservative family groups need to make “clean” edit versions of movies? If they don’t like a movie, why don’t they simply refuse to watch it, and — here’s an idea — make a movie of their own? Nobody is stopping them. They have every right to create their own art and music. But Vaidhyanathan has decreed instead that the creatively challenged shall not be troubled by the difficult task of creating for themselves; rather, they shall seize creativity from the cold dead hands of the creators. Because theft is so much easier than authorship, and it’s so gratifying to spit on artists’ graves. As a demonstration of pure respect for the authors, of course, in the “public interest.”
– Brian Zick
Instead of publishing yet another article lamenting the tyranny of copyright law, Salon ought to lead by example. Salon should take down its sternly worded copyright notices, discontinue its plutocratic “Salon Premium,” and make all of its articles freely available through open source and file-sharing. After all, the infallible dogma that information wants to be free does not distinguish between information provided by Salon and any other information.
– David Edmondson
Thank you for encouraging more media outlets to talk about copyright laws and their impact on society by publishing works on the topic today.
As the line blurs between what can and can’t be copyrighted, and as the laws get stronger and stronger in favor of corporate protections regarding those fuzzy copyrights, the public will soon find itself treading on royalty after royalty. My car’s air filter will be copyrighted so that I can’t use a non-dealer part, or my microwave will be incapable of cooking a particular food that doesn’t have a valid end-user license to prevent reverse engineering the (unwanted) genetic enhancements.
The more we talk about the absurdities (but the very real potential) of copyright laws, the more the public benefits. It’s good to see an outlet like Salon believe in the same journalistic ideas as have been established by newsmakers for almost 100 years.
– Jesse Tilly
The point that needs to be hammered home in these debates is the inherent absurdity of applying a concept meant to protect the rights of a human author to benefit from his/her hard work, while he/she is alive and can benefit (or has reasonably close heirs), to the legal fiction of a corporation’s “personhood,” which in theory may be immortal. I don’t hear Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-greats clamoring for their share of the pie (assuming some of them even know of their relationship, at this remove) — why should the heirs of Eisner et al. continue to profit from long-gone Walt’s vision indefinitely on into the future, well past the point where anyone remembers what the question even was? Have ‘em go and create their own damn cultural icon, for pete’s sake.
– S. Lynn
“So out of despair some might see civil disobedience — hacking and freely distributing songs and films over digital networks — as the only remaining response to the excesses of the copyright regimes and the hold they have over courts and Congress.”
Give me a break! There are many more mature responses available.
For instance, if you’re unsatisfied with the cost or copyright law associated with commercial creative work … why not stop paying for it?
Better still, why not simply create your own?
Mmm, not so simple, that one.
Vaidhyanathan makes the fundamental mistake most authors make on this topic: forgetting we are living in a capitalistic economy, that bills have to be paid, and that those who are willing to begin with nothing and tackle the infinite challenges involved in meeting the public demand for quality art deserve to control that art … whether it becomes popular or not.
Arguing for an eventual abolition of copyright is like arguing for the eventual expiration of property ownership. It ignores the enormous time and energy and money that went into the ownership in the first place, but the fact is that anybody who owns a house wants to be able to will it to the kids.
– Wes Simonds
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)