BROOKE GLADSTONE: AT&T used the phrase "Freedom of Expression" as a slogan in a print ad campaign, and in doing so gave Kembrew McLeod an opportunity he couldn't pass up. Asserting that readers might link the AT&T campaign to his long-running anti-corporate publication called Freedom of Expression, McLeod sent a cease and desist letter to AT&T. You see he'd had the phrase trademarked and his trademark certificate is part of an art exhibit called Illegal Art -- Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age. Kembrew McLeod joins me from the studios of WSUI in Iowa City. Welcome to the show!
KEMBREW McLEOD: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why did you really send the cease and desist order to AT&T?
KEMBREW McLEOD: I had a legitimate reason wh-- to be offended by a, a company like AT&T that actually cares little for freedom of expression appropriating that phrase to target college students and sell long distance plans to them. But more importantly I, I wanted to use the opportunity to I guess kind of create a spectacle that would get people interested enough in the turn that copyright and trademark laws have taken in recent years that I think is worrisome and dangerous in some cases.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now there are plenty of other people who have sued or sent cease and desist letters to people who have used common household phrases.
KEMBREW McLEOD: Yes, like Mrs. Smith's -- the mass-produced food company sent a cease and desist letter to a ma and pa bakery in Florida for daring to use the term "homestyle." And I guess what's important about the cease and desist letter is when it's backed by the muscle of a big company, it basically comes down to who has more money to waste in the litigation, and for the most part cease and desist letters almost act as court orders, because it intimidates people. The very grammar and syntax of our culture itself is being privately owned, and more troubling -- being policed by these intellectual property-owning companies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And basically what you're doing is throwing a pie in the face of that concept -- maybe a Mrs. Smith's pie -- with this conceptual art show. Now the show began in New York and now it's in Chicago, and it'll travel to San Francisco -- and it's full of illegal stuff.
KEMBREW McLEOD: Yes. It was curated by Carrie McLaren who publishes and edits Stay Free, and examples from the show include a piece by Brian Boyce that superimposes G.W. Bush's face in the, the sun that rises at the beginning of the Teletubbies -- and as the sun rises, there are bunnies jumping around and then laser beams shoot out of G.W. Bush's eyes and blow them up and [LAUGHTER] then eventually oil rel--wells rise from the ground and the sky turns from a technicolor blue to a, a dim gray -- and that's the end of the piece. And so he - you know - without permissions used images from the Teletubbies and from C-Span and CNN.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aren't you able to use any images for the purposes of satire?
KEMBREW McLEOD: Absolutely. There's a provision in copyright law called Fair Use which has historically allowed for people to take fragments of copyrighted images without having to ask permission for the purposes of parody--education, for journalistic purposes, etc. And there are new laws, particularly the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which was enacted in 1998, that allow corporations to essentially get around Fair Use.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about something else that the exhibit is offering, and that is a free CD. You can get it at the show for free. You can get it for free on line. And basically it contains sampled music from the Beatles and James Brown and Johnny Cash as well as songs and particularly songs that brought about legal battles of their own! [EXCERPT FOR BIZ MARKIE RAP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Biz Markie and the song Alone Again seemed to have occasioned the, the very first sampling case that went to trial.
KEMBREW McLEOD: Yes. But unfortunately that's really one of the only cases of sampling that's made it to trial. And it really didn't set very good precedent for more fragmentary uses of sampling, because that Biz Markie track essentially loops and samples the entire chorus of Alone Again, and what that ruling did is it sort of made even the most fragmentary uses of sampling -- sometimes the most unrecognizable uses of sampling --something that just can't exist any more. So there was this kind of creative window - a free for all - in the late '80s for about 3 or 4 years where the technology was new and hip hop was under the pop culture radar enough for companies to not pay attention, and that was a really fertile time for hip hop and a time that can't be re-created because of the laws.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the legal status of sampling today?
KEMBREW McLEOD: After the Biz Markie ruling, there was essentially another layer of bureaucracy set up within the music industry in which there are these things called sample clearance houses. Before a record is released, it has to sort of filter through these sample clearance houses and oftentimes exorbitant fees have to be paid to copyright owners, and that is one thing that has pushed sampling and, and hip hop in a much more uncreative direction which is it's cheaper to basically buy one sample and use that as the dominant hook in a song rather than do what Public Enemy, for instance, once did during the 1980s which was collage together dozens -- literally hundreds of fragments on an album. [EXCERPT FROM PUBLIC ENEMY SONG PLAYS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now Kembrew, it seems to me that you're pretty much of a prankster yourself, and, and this exhibit is something of a prank, but it's a prank with a point. Is the point to tell artists that they have more freedom than they think they do?
KEMBREW McLEOD: Yes, I think that's a good way of putting it. It's an in-your-face invitation to basically push the boundaries of intellectual property law and demonstrate -- hopefully by not getting sued -- that what we're doing is Fair Use.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well thanks a lot!
KEMBREW McLEOD: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kembrew McLeod teaches at the University of Iowa. The show is called Illegal Art --Freedom of Expression in the Corporate Age. You can find out more about the art and about the CD by going to onthemedia.org and we'll click you through to their site. [EXCERPT FROM PUBLIC ENEMY SONG PLAYS, CONTINUES UNDER CREDITS]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's shizow. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers and Megan Ryan; engineered by Dylan Keefe and Rob Christiansen, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Sharon Ball. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield.
CHUCK D: [RAPPING] ELVIS WAS A HERO TO MOST BUT HE-- ELVIS WAS A HERO TO MOST-- ELVIS-- WAS A HERO TO MOST BUT HE NEVER MEANT TO.... 58:30 [FUNDING CREDITS]