Take My Music . . . Please

The Beastie Boys, David Byrne and Brazilian pop legend Gilberto Gil will appear on a new CD along with 13 other artists next month--not exactly earth-shattering news. But what's unique about the disc is that diehard fans are not only likely to end up copying, remixing and swapping it online; they're actively encouraged to do so. The compilation, due out at month's end, is both a legal experiment and the opening salvo in a war against the music industry's zero-tolerance policy on file sharing. And if the folks behind it have it their way, both the artists and their fans will come out winners.

Approximately 750,000 copies of "The Wired CD: Rip. Sample. Mash. Share." are set to arrive on newsstands and in subscribers' mailboxes along with Wired magazine's November issue. Sixteen artists, some higher-profile than others, have contributed songs under a new intellectual property scheme called Creative Commons, a license that allows the artist to stipulate exactly how much freedom a fan has with a given song. While old-school copyright law assumes all rights belong to the copyright holder, works bearing the Creative Commons stamp automatically permit music junkies to swap, remix, sample or otherwise alter prerecorded music largely as they please. "The basic aim of Creative Commons is to get the law out of the way not by abolishing copyright, but by making it easier for people to negotiate it in a digital world," says Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford Law School professor who developed the license and founded a nonprofit of the same name. "We want to mark content with the freedoms the authors intend as opposed to the default that the law presumes, which is no freedom without permission first."

Lessig says by taking the rights of their tunes into their own hands, musicians can now draw a distinction between "all rights reserved" and "some rights reserved." Three of the 16 artists on the Wired CD--the Beasties, indie pop rockers My Morning Jacket, and rapper Chuck D--have contributed songs under a license that permits noncommercial sharing and noncommercial sampling. The rest--from Byrne to Gil, to Spoon to Zap Mama--have decided to allow noncommercial and commercial sharing, while restricting advertising uses of their songs. "It appeals to me that somebody could possibly take a song and use parts of it to make it into something else," says Spoon front man Britt Daniel, who lent a 1998 B-side to the compilation. "It's just creatively interesting to me . . . and I do think that eventually the reins that record labels currently hold will be cut. That doesn't mean there shouldn't be record labels, but I do think that artists should own their own recordings."

The Creative Commons license has been road tested in Brazil, where Gilberto Gil is not only a pop star in his own right, but also the country's official minister of culture. Gil has released songs with very few strings attached--fans and DJs are encouraged to alter his tunes, and even profit off the derivative works. Creative Commons projects are also getting underway in Canada and Britain. The Web site gnomoradio.org, while not directly affiliated with the Creative Commons 501(c)3, is essentially a file-sharing jukebox based on its licenses.

How does it all work? Some artists permit commercial use of works created from samples; others do not. Some artists encourage whole cloth file sharing; others limit freedoms to just sampling segments. "The idea that other people become great artists is not inconsistent with [the original musicians] being great artists too," says Lessig. The original copyright law was written for a world where lawyers met with lawyers to decide how others could remix music, he argues. That rule does not make sense in a world where anybody with a $1,500 computer can produce content that rivals the best of what MTV can do.

The timing of the first all-Creative Commons CD release couldn't be more fortuitous. The Recording Industry Association of America last year began filing lawsuits against people distributing music for free over peer-to-peer networks. On its anti-copyright infringement crusade the industry has to date sued 4,679 alleged digital pirates--including, notoriously, one 12-year-old girl and a 66-year-old sculptor who may have never downloaded a thing in her life. (The case against the sculptor was dropped, but the 12-year-old's family had to pay $2,000.) And along with the Motion Picture Association of America, the RIAA is backing bills that would criminalize some forms of file swapping. One such bill, the Induce Act--which is backed by Senate majority leader Bill Frist and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton--would close the loophole that defines file-sharing services such as Grokster as the equivalent of a Xerox machine, thus empowering the RIAA and MPAA to sue.

But what if artists don't mind having their work, as long as it's credited to them, floating freely in the ether? Even the RIAA can't see anything wrong with Creative Commons in theory. "If a copyright owner has consented to the distribution or copying of his or her work in a particular fashion, that's great," says Jonathan Layme, an association spokesman. "What we're concerned about is when that right is deprived of them and someone else is making that choice for them and giving it away for free, i.e. unauthorized file sharing." Music is only the beginning. Robert Greenwald, the liberal filmmaker behind controversial documentaries "Outfoxed" and "Uncovered: The War on Iraq," released the original footage from both movies under the same license as the Wired CD. And Lessig, whose own book "Free Culture" is available for free online under a Creative Commons license, says he is beginning to look at publishing options in the scientific community, where subscriptions to journals can be prohibitively expensive for many readers. He wants to provide a tool, he says, for journal contributors to reach a wider audience through what essentially amounts to analog file sharing.

Will mainstream record labels go the way of the Betamax as alternate channels of distribution open wide? Probably not--there will always be a role for scouting, developing and marketing new talent. But the hunger for new modes of expression and distribution has always impelled artists. After all, asks Drew Daniel of the electronica outfit Matmos which lent a song to the Wired CD, did Picasso get sued for copyright infringement by Le Figaro when he slipped a clipping from that newspaper into his collages?