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Musicians Need Labor Rights More than Copyrights
AI is a New Technology, but an Old Fight
There’s a lot of hand-wringing about AI’s potential effect on music right now – all of a sudden, it might seem, although of course the technology has been long in the works. Those in the vanguard, like artist Holly Herndon, have gotten ahead of the crowd and already thought hard about how to use these new tools creatively, and (as she hopes) positively for the community. But that won’t curb their commercial abuse, which is what most of the present hand-wringing is about. That, and an AI imitation of Drake and The Weeknd by an anonymous “ghostwriter” which quickly attracted hundreds of thousands of streams after its release.
Whatever you think of a track like this – to me, it’s a mishmash of cliché, but so is a lot of successful pop – it’s clear why Universal Music Group (UMG) and others with a vested interest in the intellectual property of Drake and The Weeknd would be perturbed.
Last month, an impressive number of music advocacy organizations came together as the Human Artistry Campaign to propose a seven-point “Core Principles for Artificial Intelligence Applications in Support of Human Creativity and Accomplishment.” Many of the key points focus on copyright: maintaining it for “human creativity,” and denying it to works made by AI.
Meanwhile, UMG in particular has started to flex its corporate muscle – it is reputed to control a third of music copyrights – and sent intimidating notices to streaming platforms engaged with AI declaring that, “We will not hesitate to take steps to protect our rights and those of our artists.” What those steps are remain a bit obscure, however; witness the instant success of “ghostwriter” on those very platforms. Is there anything that even Universal Music can do to prevent that from happening, over and over again? Much less the average working musician, who is lucky to control a third of their own copyrights rather than a third of all of them.
The answer seems obviously no. You can’t undo technology, no matter how destructive. We’re stuck with nuclear weapons, fossil fuels, leaf blowers… there’s no going back to a time before these existed. And AI may be as destructive of copyright as leaf blowers are of peace on a spring morning. The best one might hope for is to restrict and regulate their use – which still presumes, and leaves untouched, their power.
Which means corporate giant UMG – and, in their gentler way, the Human Artistry Campaign – are doomed to a perpetual battle of containment against a technology that is here to stay. Vigilance to protect copyright will have to be forever, because copyright is itself an artifact of a prior technological moment. Copyright is a tool, not a state of being. It was invented for the age of print, when copying meant physical reproduction. Fighting to protect it in the digital era may well be like fighting to protect the use of rakes in the age of leaf blowers.
But what if rather than fight for rakes, you fight for quiet. And rather than fight for copyright, you fight for fair treatment of labor.
Because what is copyright, as a tool, meant to achieve? Not the protection of corporate power – whether UMG, the streaming platforms, or the developers of AI like Google and Microsoft - but of individual creative labor. And in that regard, I would assert, it has already failed most working musicians.
Take two 20th-century legal cases that would seem to form a precedent for protection of artists from vocal imitation – Holly Herndon cites them in a discussion of existing Voice Model Rights on her website introducing the remarkable AI-based Voice Tool she developed, Holly+. One is Bette Midler v. Ford Motor Company; the other is Tom Waits v. Frito-Lay. In both, an artist brought suit against a corporation for imitating their voices without compensation, and won. These judgements would seem to form a legal bulwark against the wanton use of vocal models by AI - like the one released this week by ghostwriter.
But now consider a common experience I and many of my fellow musicians have had well before the advent of AI: an offer comes in for commercial use of one of our songs. We ask our representatives if we might get more. And we are cautioned: maybe, but don’t ask for too much, because they might say no and just copy your work instead of paying anything at all.
Which is precisely what happened to Bette Midler and Tom Waits. But they had resources to sue. And most of us don’t.
In other words, copyright isn’t effective protection on its own for artists, capital is. If you don’t have the capital to go to court against a corporation like Ford or Frito-Lay, you have to assume they will copy your work if they so choose. Which leaves artists to negotiate from a position of weakness, regardless of copyright ownership. Is that so different from what we will now face with AI?
But what if we organize artists to fight not for copyright in this new technological moment, but labor rights: fair compensation, health care, paid leave, retirement benefits, all the basic securities that workers have won from employers or governments through collective action. That is a struggle with many more 20th-century victories to point to than Bette Midler and Tom Waits. Yet it’s a struggle creative artists - and musicians in particular - may have thought didn’t apply to them because of their status as intellectual property owners. It’s been so easy to declare copyright ownership of music, and get nothing from it.
What we need above all to protect working artists in the present is to address the power imbalance between corporations and creators. Workers – individual creative artists – are at a tremendous disadvantage in power struggles over AI, or any other digital technology developed and used by massively capitalized corporations. Copyright doesn’t correct that imbalance. But organized labor can. We know, because it has before.
This is an old answer, yes. But the problem creators face from AI isn’t so new as the technology. It’s as old as capitalism. And as out of control as we have let it become in the 21st century.
Listening to: Scree, Jasmine on a Night in July
Cooking: Orange cake with almond flour
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