Lecture grounds copyright infringment in pop culture

Copyright infringement lawyer and Vassar graduate Kim Landsman spoke to students regarding the difference between piracy and inspiration. Photo by: Alec Ferretti.
Copyright infringement lawyer and Vassar graduate Kim Landsman spoke to students regarding the difference between piracy and inspiration. Photo by: Alec Ferretti.
Copyright infringement lawyer and Vassar graduate Kim Landsman spoke to students regarding the difference between piracy and inspiration. Photo by: Alec Ferretti.

On Monday, Nov. 11, intellectual property lawyer Kim Landsman ’74 visited campus to sit in on classes and give a lecture titled, “Intellectual Property’s Blurred Lines.” Landsman’s lecture offered case studies  of intellectual property law and emphasized the increase of these cases over the past decade.

Landsman started the lecture by claiming, “According to Steven Colbert, the two hit songs of the summer were ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Get Lucky.’” Landsman then spoke specifically to the songs styles and the influences earlier songs had on these summer hits. He then addressed the song “Blurred Lines” by singer Robin Thicke in particular. Landsman compared this song to another song titled “Gotta Get it Up” by singer Marvin Gaye that was listed by Thicke as an inspiration for his own song. Landsman played the opening 10 seconds of both songs, making the point that these two songs have strikingly similar opening beats. This pulled the speaker into a discussion of intellectual property Law and the real case brought up by Gaye’s representatives. As Landsman said, “What I want to do for you is to go through a thought experiment. We’re Marvin Gaye’s lawyers. How would we analyze this?”

Landsman continued, further explaining the argument made by Marvin Gaye’s lawyers. “The basis of the Gaye’s defendants’ claim is that ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give it Up’ ‘sound’ and ‘feel’ the same,” he explained.

Landsman continued in the lecture, illuminating different cases of intellectual property disputes and their evolution over the years. The cases all focused  on disputes of art in various mediums and styles.

As Assistant Professor of Economics Ben Ho explained in an emailed statement, “ [Intellectual Property] issues have definitely become more prevalent. More and more of the economy is based on information (from iTunes to Twitter to Facebook to Google to academic research) and the complexity of those industries have multiplied with the speed of technology. Patent filings have increased at similar pace. Any software you use touches upon thousands of different patents.”

One of Landsman’s central points was that the US court system has tried to deal with the problem of intellectual property law in the past by creating what he called “bright-line rules” that attempt to resolve disputes in clear and simple ways. The problem, as he demonstrated, is that these intellectual property law disputes do not always fit with the clear solutions that the courts try to provide. As Landsman said, “In many cases, indeed what constitutes an infringement is sufficiently clear and obvious, but in other cases, the lines approach very near to each other…There is an ever-present tension between bright-line rules and blurred lines.”

Elena Horvit ’16 was in the audience and shared her own feelings about the form and content of the event. “I loved his talk. Intellectual property is a topic that I think could be pretty inaccessible, but he made an effort to connect the legal technicalities with things we could easily relate to,” she said. “The lecture was really fun and engaging. He worked really hard to make it relevant to a college audience. He made all of the legal terms and distinctions clear, and his examples made the material very accessible.”

She continued, referencing one case Landsman spoke about which featured an artist who spent years photographing Rastafarians in Jamaica. “I thought his use of actual images from the Rasta case made the issues at hand incredibly concrete—it was amazing to get such a clear image of how far intellectual property protection actually goes, and how arbitrarily decisions about intellectual property seem to be made.”

One central point that came up in the questions after the lecture focused on the damages that artists claim when their copyrighted work is used without their permission. Ho explained the complexity of the issue while also describing the cost breaking copyright can have on a content-producer.

“In a very real sense, as the advocates say, ‘information DOES want to be free.’ The marginal cost of copying information is close to zero, so the socially optimal price of information should also be zero. However, where the social cost of copying arises is that if the creators of content can’t reap the proceeds of their invention, then we get no new content,” Ho explained.

Landsman also pushed back against the idea that artists aren’t or shouldn’t be concerned with the breaking of their copyright. “What you create is you,” he argued.

Landsman then briefly brought up a key distinction relating to intellectual property and copyright law when he discussed the legal terms parody and satire, and their implications. The idea he conveyed was that people who use copyrighted material for parody are more legally justified, and therefore less likely to lose an intellectual property case in court, than people who use this material for satirical purposes. As he said, “Parody comments on the work that you’re using. Satire uses the prior work to criticize something else. Oversimplifying it, Parody is OK, Satire is not.”

Ultimately, the lecture was well-received by the audience and several people stayed afterwards to continue the conversation with Landsman. Many confirmed that Landsman was able to take a topic commonly considered extremely complex and presented to the audience in a clarified way. As Landsman said, “When you quote, you cite. When you paraphrase, you’re supposed to cite.”

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