This winter has been the longest and darkest in Berlin since 1951, so last month I paid another visit to Fabienne Serrière (FBZ) who you might recall from my earlier video as a hardware hacker and machine knitter extraordinaire. This time I had something of my own I wanted to knit. Inspired by Fabienne and Becky Stern and everybody else involved in hacking these machines, who built upon the work of others and then put their own improvements into the commons, I decided to draw on the commons to create an open source hat.
One of the best places to explore our cultural commons is of course the Public Domain Review, where I found just the right images to fit both my hat and the Berlin weather. Check out the video above to see how the hat came together!
These images are certainly beautiful, but that was 1863, we’ve moved on a bit since then. Now, thanks to the aid of modern technology, we can finally present these snowflakes as the artist would have envisioned them, in glorious 1-bit duocolor:
So they may have lost a little subtlety, but hey, they’re on a hat.
You can see (and download) many more of these great snowflake drawings from the Public Domain Review. And while you’re there, have a look around, their collection is a fascinating, expertly curated look into our cultural history. Check out images of the Krakatoa Sunsets from 1883 (good name for a surf band, that). Cheseldon’s osteographical images of lively skeletons, and read the back story of the Brothers Grimm. Public domain content belongs to all of us – so you can browse the collection for inspiration, and feel free to re-use and remix. Why not screenprint your favourite Kamekichi Tsunajima woodcut on a t-shirt?
Need some material for your surrealist erotica? Look no further than the toothy vaginas of Emanuel Swedeborg’s erotic dreams. Dive into the back catalogue of the Elvis of the early 1900s, Enrico Caruso and you just might find inspiration for something truly marvellous:
What I really love about browsing the public domain or other free cultural works (such as those under Creative Commons Attribution or Attribution-ShareAlike licenses) is that there is always the possibility to just grab something and experiment. You don’t have to ask, you don’t have to explain yourself, or decide whether you may end up using something commercially, you can just go ahead and play. You already have permission to use these works for whatever you like.
Got any favourite long-dead bluesmen, or Creative Commons music?
There are so many enjoyable things about trying to live without patents and traditional copyright – learning about developments in open hardware, open education, learning to make things myself or meeting people doing crazy projects. And I’m happy to give up most of the consumerist/proprietary lifestyle. I wasn’t much of a serious shopper anyway… most of my money went on camera equipment. With some changes, I’ll never look back – I was never a Mac fanboy – I chose Apple not because I particularly liked it, but rather because I particularly disliked Windows, and Final Cut Pro was an Apple product. In 2008, when I bought this computer, I hadn’t even considered Linux.
But when I backed up my computer for the change of operating system, I had to bid a sad farewell to my music library. I transferred all of my music files to a hard drive, not to be touched for a year. I started with a fresh music library. My music this year will only be music in the public domain (without copyright) or released with a Creative Commons (some rights reserved) license. Everything else, the vast majority of my collection, was under ‘All Rights Reserved’ copyright, so it had to go.
I dug through my collection to haul out any public domain / CC music that I could find… the only music there that I knew was Creative Commons licensed are two artists from Wellington, New Zealand: the sublime Urbantramper and the gloriously ridiculous Disasteradio. There may have been others I missed, but there’s no handy ‘copyright status’ metadata for ordering and searching music, so I wasn’t able to find out easily.
You probably have a good idea of what kind of music is public domain: Old music. No problem, I like old music! I listen to a lot of old Piedmont blues and spirituals from the 20s, so I thought I’d be able to keep them. In order to find out which music is public domain, I first had to find out the length of a copyright term in Germany. Here, and throughout the EU, music copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the author*. So a composition like ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, (even if you don’t know the name, you definitely know the tune) written by Richard Strauss in 1893, is not able to be used without a license because the inconsiderate bastard didn’t get around to dying until 1949.
The artist has to have died before 1942 for me to include their music in my collection. So my research was a perverse Wikipedia exercise in which I would whoop for joy upon discovering that a favourite blues artist was stabbed in a bar brawl aged 24, or died a syphilitic, penniless death in 1937.
It was a huge relief to find that Robert Johnson was deliberately poisoned in 1938. Blind Lemon Jefferson froze to death in 1929, thank buggery! Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Son House, unfortunately for me (but very fortunately for the rest of the world) survived long enough to be rediscovered and have a revival in the ’60s. Aliens outside of our solar system are able to listen to Blind Willie Johnson, but he died in 1945, so I’m out of luck.
Not everything public domain is old, however – many governments, including the United States, release works, documents, files and information as public domain or the Creative Commons equivalent (Creative Commons Zero). So I still get confused. Can anybody clarify what the copyright status of, say, Alan Lomax‘s Library of Congress recordings might be? Are the recordings public domain, but not the compositions?
I can listen, share, and use public domain compositions and recordings in any video I like. But the other Creative Commons licenses are more specific – they’re designed to allow a copyright holder to specify what use he or she explicitly permits, and I’ll be buying, downloading and listening to music with Creative Commons licenses this year. Things get tricky when I want to include a track in a video and post it online, as I am creating a derivative work and redistributing it. So I need to check which license the music track uses (more info on licenses at creativecommons.org):
Attribution (CC-BY): I can listen, share, and use the track in any video I like – as long as I attribute the copyright holder in whatever derivative work I make.
Attribution-Sharealike (CC-BY-SA): Same terms as above, but I have to release derivative works under the same license. My videos are all CC-BY-SA anyway, so that’s no problem for me!
I can’t use music under the following non-free licenses in my videos:
Attribution-Non Commercial (CC-BY-NC): I can listen, and share with friends, but I can’t use it in my videos unless they are also released under a Non Commercial license or standard All Rights Reserved copyright.
Attribution-Non Commercial – Sharealike (CC-BY-NC-SA): (eg. Urbantramper’s music) I can listen, share with friends, but I can’t use it in my videos unless I attribute the copyright holder, and release the video under the same license. I could not release a video including CC-BY-NC-SA music as CC-BY-SA (the license I use) or any other free license, or even as all rights reserved.
So now I find myself in the strange position of starting to discover music again from scratch, but unlike when I was 13 and first started buying CDs, this time I’m discovering new music with years of experiences, prejudices and opinions already burned-in. You meet a lot of people who, when asked what music they like, you get: “Oh, I like all music. You know, anything with a beat, man.”
Not me. I’m the first to admit that I don’t like most music. I actively dislike the majority of music. I tolerate a minority. Even within the genres I do like, there’s plenty of crap. But there’s 0.000756% of the music out there in the world which I utterly adore, obsess over, and listen to over and over again – frantic, clattering, rolling, beating music – songs that slip unexpected thoughts and ideas into your brain, squeeze humour into darkened places, whether thrown-out half-ideas or epic, complex, opuses (opi? opese?). I love musicians whose self-expression, individuality, honesty, and creativity smash the lens of production value, style and technical prowess with which so much music is viewed.
It’s tough finding exciting new music when you’re a whiny old critic. So I need a little help…
I often like:
Post Punk – Krautrock – Soul (particularly NOLA/Memphis) – ‘folktronica’ – Pre-War Blues / Gospel – Indie – Surf – Afrobeat – Rocksteady – Funk (but easy on the slap bass there, fellas) – Rockabilly – Bluegrass – Jazz/Bebop/Hard Bop – Political hip hop – Garage – Alt Country.
I sometimes like:
Punk – Reggae – Electric Blues – Classical – Folk
I don’t like:
Grunge – Metal – R’n’B – Dub – Western – Trance – Reggaeton – Techno – DnB – House – Dubstep – Lounge – anything preceded by the words ‘Smooth,’ ‘Heavy’, ‘Deep’ or ‘Euro’.
So that should give you an idea. It’s time to refill my music library! Do you make music and release it under a CC license? Or do you know of other musicians who do? If you think I might like it, send me a link in the comments! Actually, even if you think I won’t like it, I’m just curious about what’s out there. As I mentioned, my mind may not be totally open, but in this situation I’ll leave it slightly ajar, ok?
*¡CUIDADO! in many countries, copyright terms are even longer than in the EU. In Mexico, as Carlos points out in the comments, copyright lasts for 100 years. It’s best to look into your own country’s term length, and also check if your country conforms to the rule of the shorter term.