Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Cross-posted at my new Ripley in Jamaica blog, which has a lot of other posts up, by the way..

I guess this is the part of legal aid I'm finding scary. Not dealing with the inmates, who so far basically seem happy to have anyone there who cares to help them (sometimes maybe too happy, but hey, it's a men prison). What's scary is drafting legal documents that will stay here after I go, for the purpose of putting some decision-making back into the hands of the inmates, as respects the labor they do.

But it's also totally fricking brilliant, to have to think about this in a such a practical way.

The part of the SET project I am most connected with is that of the recording studio and radio station – currently there is no explicit or specific legal framework defining what rights inmates have against outsiders who engage with them or their music. Even though overall I am not a copyright enthusiast, I can see how copyright is an appealing legal argument, because it is an assertive property right you can appeal to against even the powerful.

Of course, everything about the creative process here complicates claiming a property right. DCS (Department of Correctional Services) technically owns the building, the SET foundation owns most of the equipment, although an outside NGO owns some of it. The Rehabilitation Through Music program is an SET program, undertaken courtesy of DCS. So there's a tangle of ownership of the material and non-material infrastructure.. Add in that inmates may be collaborating (as all artists do, heck as all people do), what rights do each of them have?

Then, to complicate it further if outside producers and engineers come in, they undoubtedly contribute something creative and important to the sound recording. On the basis of contribution, weighing the value of all of these is pretty difficult.

What is clear is the power imbalance – if an outsider comes in and records an inmate, and goes off with the recordings, legally the outsider might even be okay, because in Jamaica absent a written agreement the recording person is considered the copyright owner. But it feels terrible, to allow that to happen. It seems unethical based on the POSITION of the people involved.

This is what I've been feeling all along, that if you can't incorporate the positions of the people involved into your analysis, then you can't really be sure the system you are setting up is positive. In this case the freedom and power of the outsider, and the restriction and relative weakness of the inmate are at such opposite poles it seems dreadfully unfair to have the outsider profit, or have control.

Of course, a great many guys here are in for life, they are mainly interested in hearing their music spread. If an outsider can spread it, then that may be a plus for them. The traditional trade-off for copyright is that the labels will take care of what may be expensive, confusing work of distribution. Nowadays people are arguing the internet can counterbalance that, but I don't think that's so convincing for inmates in Jamaica.. That is where the Antenna Alliance comes in, of course, offering networks of promotion and distribution of CC-licensed music. That's why they are here in Kingston. It's an interesting experiment, I'm curious how far it goes this summer.

Another argument maybe against retaining copyright is the guys here may not be able to profit much from any money, even if there is any: it might come too slowly, or not at all. Some producers give payment up front, which is appealing to poor folks for a lot of good reasons. I'm wary of acting as if any copyright automatically equals royalties, because it's unlikely enough generally that I'm not sure it's a good context in which to make decisions.

I guess, along with the contextual, ethical issue, the main concern I have of giving up copyright is the lack of exposure if an owner decides NOT to promote the artist, then the artist can't try anything else.

I don't have any answers for now – right now the biggest challenge is fitting the contract on a single page so there can be no confusion later as to who signed what, no lost or separated pages..

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