Panelists discuss digital rights in today’s online world

by Elise Higgins | 4/20/16 5:01pm

A panel of artists and entrepreneurs shared their perspectives on digital rights at the DEN Innovation Center on Monday.
by Tiffany Zhai / The Dartmouth

Piracy is often viewed as a victimless crime. The months film editors tediously spend editing a movie and the long hours singers invest in recording studios are neglected for the instant gratification experienced when downloading digital works right as they hit the market. Content creators can suffer from illegal downloading or file-sharing because they do not receive proper compensation for their work.

Hoping to stir conversation about this nationwide problem, the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network hosted a panel talk this past Monday at the DEN Innovation Center titled, “Digital Rights and the Artist.” Thayer School of Engineering professor Tillman Gerngross, music professor Michael Casey and digital humanities professor Mary Flanagan spoke at the panel. New York University senior university counsel Mark Righter and musician and composer Maria Schneider were also present. All five panelists discussed how contemporary digital rights affect their respective fields.

Gerngross, an entrepreneur and co-founder of two technology companies GlycoFi, Incorporated and Adimab, LLC, moderated the talk.

Because each field has different approaches toward protecting creators’ rights and eventually commercializing products, Gerngross said the term intellectual property has a different interpretation across his colleagues’ industries.

“This panel explored a different version of what people normally understand intellectual property to be,” he said.

Righter touched upon the various ways to protect or identify intellectual property. To distinguish the source of a good, producers use trademarks, which are usually words, phrases, symbols or designs. To protect the expression of an idea, whether in the form of songs, movies, books or works of art, creators purchase copyrights, which last between 70 to 120 years depending on when the work is published and the duration of the creator’s life. Patents give producers a limited duration property right to inventions while trade secrets — confidential information regarding an enterprise’s manufacturing, industrial or commercial processes — help producers maintain a competitive edge.

The panelists discussed how their industries utilize these means. Gerngross said artists do not use trade secrets because their work is meant to be seen, while technology companies rely on patents for the right to their products.

Still, there are many layers to the debate on intellectual property. Casey’s work in music, which he described as a compilation of different songs, challenges traditional understandings of who the creator is.

“It’s kind of a provocative act to create art out of other people’s art,” Casey said.

Casey emphasized the process rather than the product. He said that he does not view it as theft because the small pieces are used to create something new. Despite this, Casey still believes that he does not have the right to sell his creation. Through his work, however, he does have several patents for his technology, which include a voice activated music playback system and a method for recognizing, indexing and searching acoustic signals.

Flanagan also talked about the occasional difficulty of defining the line between fair use and theft. As the founder of Tiltfactor, a game research laboratory at Dartmouth, she discussed her experience with creating a relatively successful online game under a particular name before seeing other websites launched under similar names. Although these sites did not steal the actual game, they stole online traffic and therefore gained advertisement revenue. Flanagan said she disagreed with this tactic but did not necessarily view it as theft.

Flanagan’s work has been used without her knowledge before. She said the anonymous nature of the online world makes it difficult to monitor illegal downloading and unauthorized usage. The panelists agreed that the act of stealing music does not feel so concrete when modern consumers often purchase content online rather than physically buying an album at a store.

Schneider discussed her experience as a musician in a world in which downloading is extremely prevalent and fair compensation is harder to receive. Due to her frustration with the industry, she decided to publish her music through ArtistShare, a fan funded platform for artists to share their creative process. Schneider said ArtistShare allows her to cut out the middleman and be in control of her own database.

“[ArtistShare] worked unbelievably well,” she said. “It created this respect and this relationship between the audience and myself.”

In 2005, Schneider’s collaboration was rewarded with a Grammy Award for “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album” for “Concert in the Garden” (2004), the first album to win the award without being sold in retail stores. ArtistShare also produced her 2007 album “Sky Blue” and 2014 album “Winter Morning Walks,” which won three Grammys.

Schneider said she felt as if this collaboration truly liberated her and recommended that all artists take control of their own music.

However, many artists do not use the platform and often rely on streaming sites to promote their music. Schneider said that artists are desperate to be noticed and are easily enticed. She questioned if the perception that publicity is beneficial to artists’ careers actually does any good when the artist does not receive compensation.

Righter acknowledged the irony of this apparent cultural belief by comparing artists to entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.

“There is a cultural belief that it is okay for a person to have [large amounts of] money for creating something,” Righter said.

Righter said this ideology appears to be missing with musicians who are often criticized for trying to receive adequate compensation for their creations. Righter emphasized that all creators are equal and that intellectual property is needed to reward them for their work.

Schneider encouraged artists to manage their own music and publishing in order to solve this problem.

“If musicians take control of their work, they have a hell of a lot of power,” Schneider said.

Musicians have tried to confront Congress about the issue, but Schneider said this has proved largely ineffective. Instead, she recommends consumers try to change their beliefs about intellectual property and artists’ rights. If musicians and fans alike change, she said she believes artists will begin to be fairly compensated for their work.