If Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, the Eagles' Don Henley, Deadmau5, Sting and other top songwriters have their way, the U.S. won't change copyright laws to "strip" them of their right to refuse mashups, remixes and sampling of their songs. "I already have to allow other artists to record my songs without permission," they wrote in individual letters to the Patent and Trademark Office earlier this month. "Allowing them to materially change my songs or recordings without my permission is taking it a step too far."
Numerous artists have been frightened since a Commerce Department task force submitted a 112-page "green paper" last July analyzing copyright laws and dealing with a huge range of topics, from remixes to YouTube cover songs to the record industry's lawsuits against 30,000 file-sharers. "The question is whether the creation of remixes is being unacceptably impeded," the task force wrote. "There is today a healthy level of production, but clearer legal options might result in even more valuable creativity."
While the green paper only analyzes policy without making specific recommendations for action, the U.S. received dozens of comments from artists, songwriters, authors and companies such as Microsoft, Google and eBay. Some argued for artists' rights to sample older songs without fear of lawsuits or damages; a Future of Music Coalition letter quoted Public Enemy's Chuck D on hip-hop sampling: "By 1994, [sample licensing] had become so difficult to the point where it was impossible to do any of the type of records we did in the late 1980s because every second of sound had to be cleared."
One letter cited artist Thomas Forsythe's "Food Chain Barbie" project, in which the iconic dolls are attacked by kitchen appliances — a social commentary about objectifying women. Mattel, which owns the dolls' copyrights, later sued the artist. "To require the payment of a license fee under such circumstances seems morally problematic at least, and objectively harmful at worst," reps for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Stanford University's Internet Law Center declared.
Tyler, Sting and the other crusading songwriters worry the government's elaborate process for soliciting and publishing opinions will eventually hurt songwriters. "We've got to kill this now," Dina LaPolt, a veteran artist attorney who represents Tyler, Deadmau5 and Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, tells Rolling Stone. "We're not interested in having roundtables where we can analyze and comment on how to cut away the artist approvals so you can bastardize their work."
But despite the strong words from panicky artists, U.S. trademark officials insist they have no imminent plans for a new compulsory license that would give any artist or musician permission to remix songs or alter books without a license from the writer. "This will be a long and careful process," says Shira Perlmutter, a chief policy officer for the Patent and Trademark Office, which plans to make recommendations to Congress by the end of 2014. "It's possible we'll say the law is fine and doesn't need any changes.
"We're certainly committed that we wouldn't recommend anything to undermine the rights of creators," Perlmutter adds. "It's going to be a busy year."