A story that broke last month in Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, got a lot of people in the contemporary art world asking this question about the sculptor and painter Charles Krafft.
Krafft, 65, has been celebrated as a provocateur, making subversive objects modeled after delicate Delft pottery, including a porcelain AK-47 and china teapots in the shape of Hitler’s head. Jen Graves, The Stranger’s visual arts writer, called Krafft “the Northwest’s best iconoclast.”
And the context of his work has always been ironic satire, until now.
Six months ago, an anonymous person emailed Graves asking if Krafft was a Holocaust denier. Graves got in touch with the artist.
“Do you believe Hitler’s regime systematically murdered millions of Jews?” she wrote.
He replied: “I don’t doubt that Hitler’s regime killed a lot of Jews in WWII, but I don’t believe they were ever frog marched into homicidal gas chambers and dispatched.”
Graves dug deeper and found a podcast from July 2012 on a website called “The White Network” in which Krafft was a guest. Throughout the two-hour podcast Krafft expresses strong white separatist and anti-Semitic views and at one point simply states, “I believe the Holocaust is a myth.”
There is nothing ‘special’ about artists that inoculates or indemnifies them against being despicable people worthy of nothing more than contempt.
David Lowery’s brilliant reply to an NPR staffer who blogged on the NPR site that of the 11,000 songs she ‘owns’, she actually only purchased 15 CDs of music in her life. There is a bit of confusion about how she acquired the others, but an awful lot of them were stolen. Lowery, of Cracker, and Camper van Beethoven, breaks down the moral and commercial issues very clearly, morally, and directly. As he explains the evil of things like Spotify, he exposes the Free Culture movement as a creation of very large, multi-national corporations who support and profit from stealing because the only party who doesn’t get pain in the end is…the person or group who created the music. Google gets paid either way. Long, very worthwhile read for anyone who loves music and supports musicians. Read the entire blog post here, I really encourage you. If you liked Vic Chestnutt or Sparklehorse, for example, there’s an object lesson to be found in the full post.
Your letter clearly shows that you sense that something is deeply wrong, but you don’t put your finger on it. I want to commend you for doing this. I also want to enlist you in the fight to correct this outrage. Let me try to to show you exactly what is wrong. What it is you can’t put your finger on.
The fundamental shift in principals and morality is about who gets to control and exploit the work of an artist. The accepted norm for hudreds of years of western civilization is the artist exclusively has the right to exploit and control his/her work for a period of time. (Since the works that are are almost invariably the subject of these discussions are popular culture of one type or another, the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.) By allowing the artist to treat his/her work as actual property, the artist can decide how to monetize his or her work. This system has worked very well for fans and artists. Now we are being asked to undo this not because we think this is a bad or unfair way to compensate artists but simply because it is technologically possible for corporations or individuals to exploit artists work without their permission on a massive scale and globally. We are being asked to continue to let these companies violate the law without being punished or prosecuted. We are being asked to change our morality and principals to match what I think are immoral and unethical business models.
Who are these companies? They are sites like The Pirate Bay, or Kim Dotcom and Megaupload. They are “legitimate” companies like Google that serve ads to these sites through AdChoices and Doubleclick. They are companies like Grooveshark that operate streaming sites without permission from artists and over the objections of the artist, much less payment of royalties lawfully set by the artist. They are the venture capitalists that raise money for these sites. They are the hardware makers that sell racks of servers to these companies. And so on and so on.
What the corporate backed Free Culture movement is asking us to do is analogous to changing our morality and principles to allow the equivalent of looting. Say there is a neighborhood in your local big city. Let’s call it The ‘Net. In this neighborhood there are record stores. Because of some antiquated laws, The ‘Net was never assigned a police force. So in this neighborhood people simply loot all the products from the shelves of the record store. People know it’s wrong, but they do it because they know they will rarely be punished for doing so. What the commercial Free Culture movement (see the “hybrid economy”) is saying is that instead of putting a police force in this neighborhood we should simply change our values and morality to accept this behavior. We should change our morality and ethics to accept looting because it is simply possible to get away with it. And nothing says freedom like getting away with it, right?
But it’s worse than that. It turns out that Verizon, AT&T, Charter etc etc are charging a toll to get into this neighborhood to get the free stuff. Further, companies like Google are selling maps (search results) that tell you where the stuff is that you want to loot. Companies like Megavideo are charging for a high speed looting service (premium accounts for faster downloads). Google is also selling ads in this neighborhood and sharing the revenue with everyone except the people who make the stuff being looted. Further, in order to loot you need to have a $1,000 dollar laptop, a $500 dollar iPhone or $400 Samsumg tablet. It turns out the supposedly “free” stuff really isn’t free. In fact it’s an expensive way to get “free” music. (Like most claimed “disruptive innovations”it turns out expensive subsidies exist elsewhere.) Companies are actually making money from this looting activity. These companies only make money if you change your principles and morality! And none of that money goes to the artists!
And believe it or not this is where the problem with Spotify starts. The internet is full of stories from artists detailing just how little they receive from Spotify. I shan’t repeat them here. They are epic. Spotify does not exist in a vacuum. The reason they can get away with paying so little to artists is because the alternative is The ‘Net where people have already purchased all the gear they need to loot those songs for free. Now while something like Spotify may be a solution for how to compensate artists fairly in the future, it is not a fair system now. As long as the consumer makes the unethical choice to support the looters, Spotify will not have to compensate artists fairly. There is simply no market pressure. Yet Spotify’s CEO is the 10th richest man in the UK music industry ahead of all but one artist on his service.
Could this even be true?
Or, better yet, listen to this podcast from ‘Planet Money’ and ‘This American Life’.
Technology companies pay Intellectual Ventures fees ranging “from tens of thousands to the millions and millions of dollars … to buy themselves insurance that protects them from being sued by any harmful, malevolent outsiders,” [Chris] Sacca says.
There’s an implication in IV’s pitch, Sacca says: If you don’t join us, who knows what’ll happen?
He says it reminds him of “a mafia-style shakedown, where someone comes in the front door of your building and says, ‘It would be a shame if this place burnt down. I know the neighborhood really well and I can make sure that doesn’t happen.’ “
Here’s what’s funny: When I’ve seen Nathan [Myhrvold, founder of the patent trolling company, Intellectual (sic) Ventures, and former famous person when he worked at Microsoft, that well-known originator of brilliant new ideas that weren’t stolen from anybody else, ever] speak publicly about this and when I’ve seen spokespeople from IV they constantly remind us that they themselves don’t bring lawsuits, that they themselves aren’t litigators, that they are a defensive player. But the truth is the threat of their patent arsenal can’t actually be realized, it can’t be taken seriously, unless they have that offensive posture, unless they’re willing to assert those patents. And so it’s this very delicate balancing act that is quite reminiscent of scenes you see in movies when the mafia comes and visits your butcher shop and they say, “Hey, It would be a real shame if they came and sued you. Tell you what: pay us an exorbitant membership fee into our collective and we’ll keep you protected that way.” A protection scheme isn’t credible if some butcher shops don’t burn down now and then.
In an email to us, Peter Detkin [someone who actually chose to be a lawyer for Intellectual (sic) Ventures, after he actually coined the term ‘patent troll’ while working at Intel] called the comparison to the mafia “ridiculous and offensive.” Detkin wrote:
We’re a disruptive company that’s providing a way for patent-holders to recognize value that wasn’t available before we came on the scene, and we are making a big impact on the market. That obviously makes people uncomfortable. But no amount of name-calling changes the fact that ideas have value. (See Detkin’s full response here.)
True enough. But you can see why many people feel like lots of butcher shops have been burning. As we were reporting this story, more and more Intellectual Ventures patents started showing up in the hands of companies like Oasis, companies without employees or operations, that were formed for the purpose of filing lawsuits. They’re known as non-practicing entities, or NPEs.
One former IV patent was used by an NPE to sue 19 different companies, a broad assortment that included Dell, Abercrombie & Fitch, Visa, and UPS.
These companies all have websites where, when you scroll your mouse over certain sections, pop-up boxes appear. The NPE said, “We have the patent on that.” Which would make pretty much the entire Internet guilty of infringing the patent.
Another group of former IV patents is being used in one of the most controversial and talked about cases in Silicon Valley right now. An NPE called Lodsys is suing roughly three dozen companies developing apps for the iPhone and for Android phones. Lodsys says it owns the patent on buying things from within a smartphone app.
In this recording from NPR, Josh Karp discusses his biography of Doug Kenney, the great, barely-known comedy genius who helped create the National Lampoon, the Lampoon’s 1964 High School Yearbook Parody, and co-wrote Animal House and Caddyshack. He was instrumental in launching the careers of John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Anne Beatts, and more. Kenney died in a fall from a cliff in Hawaii at the age of 33 — coincidentally, the same age as Jesus. [image from Esquire’s cover article about Kenney in 1981, written by Robert Sam Anson]