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Too much joy: Who gets royalties from 'Happy Birthday'?

Gilbert O'Sullivan's smackdown of Biz Markie, the Turtles' suit against De La Soul—these are familiar battles to anyone versed in the messy legal history of sampling. The 1998 assault on pop-punk gagsters Too Much Joy by Larry Harmon, b/k/a Bozo the Clown? That one, not so much. Yet in TMJ frontman Tim Quirk, professor-critic-gadfly Kembrew McLeod finds an everyman particularly well-spoken about the juridical idiocies he's faced. And the band's clownish assailant is so emblematic of intellectual-property-mongering greed he inspires the subtitle for McLeod's survey of the ways in which IP law is commonly abused: Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity.

Make that Freedom of Expression®, registered as a trademark by McLeod in 1998; since then he's engineered high-level PR stunts, such as suing AT&T for use of "his" phrase in a newspaper ad. That same prankster sensibility marks his eye and ear for the ridiculous—as with the case of Too Much Joy, McLeod pinpoints not the definitive example but the most howlingly unacceptable absurdity to grate against common sense. He sets out, for instance, by explaining how "This Land Is Your Land" and "Happy Birthday," compositions that borrowed heavily from the public domain, became private intellectual property, then draws a parallel with the process by which the results of scientific research have been cordoned off from the public.

McLeod develops no overarching thesis to specifically tie these developments to the "ownership" ethos that corporations have been successfully peddling to a hoodwinked electorate. Instead, each chapter chooses a new subject—sampling laws, file sharing, illegal art—and plumbs it relentlessly. As a result Freedom of Expression is less an argument than a series of well-timed counterpunches at various abuses. In Free Culture, the crystalline reasoning of Lawrence Lessig approached the need for IP reform from clearly defined legal and pragmatic grounds; McLeod's comparatively scattershot approach aims for the gut. And why not? If Jack Valenti can identify electronic bootlegging with breaking and entering, McLeod is certainly justified in slamming litigious corporate hacks as bozos.

McLeod: An ear for the howling absurdity
photo: Lynne Nugent
McLeod: An ear for the howling absurdity

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Freedom of Expression
By Kembrew McLeod
Doubleday, 375 pp., $24.95
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But though McLeod effectively appeals to an undecided reader's sense of fairness, he's on shakier ground with that same hypothetical skeptic when defending creativity against the all-too-ingrained ideological concept of "ownership." In the public imagination, copyright infringement may be a 3 a.m. stop sign on an abandoned rural road, but file sharers and other IP dodgers retain a nagging sense that they're doing something wrong. Driven by an anti-authoritarian impulse to tweak the nose of the powerful, McLeod overestimates the ability of satire to convince his readers otherwise. After all, most people don't consider a world without Negativland an unthinkable dystopia. And if Michael Moore taught us anything, it's that you can't defeat your enemy by proving him a fool.

 
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