The Johnny Cash Project: moving celebration or grave robbery?

Posted: August 27, 2011 in Business, Misleadership
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

I may be late to this party, but a friend of mine just turned me on to The Johnny Cash Project.

It’s an amazing example of crowdsourcing, billed as “A unique communal work, a living portrait of The Man in Black.” Basically, artists get to draw an image of Johnny Cash to be integrated into an animated music video of Cash’s song, “Ain’t No Grave.” For me, one of the coolest aspects is that because people are constantly adding new content, the video is always changing. And you can choose to view the video by watching Highest Rated Frames, Director Curated Frames, Abstract Frames, Realistic Frames, and more.

I highly recommend checking it out. And thanks to my friend, surfer, homeopathic physician, and killer folk music artist Acoustic Apothecary, for sharing this with me. (Check out Acoustic Apothecary’s You Tube videos here.)

But of course, I’m not here simply to bring you the new and interesting (at which I’ve failed miserably given that this has been around awhile). I think there’s a much more important issue at stake here: who owns a creator’s work, and what rights does the creator have as to it’s reproduction and use.

I have written before about who actually owns a creator’s work (please read my posts about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and The Who’s My Generation). In this instance, while “Ain’t No Grave” is Johnny Cash’s final studio recording, this video is posthumous.

Because it was created with the support of the Cash Estate, I’m sure all the legal bases have been covered. But what about the moral ones? (Including whether his estate is the right authority to make that decision, when its interest in continuing to make money on his creativity may be in conflict with its responsibility to protect the integrity of his legacy? For more on this, see my post, “I See Dead People…”.)

Specifically, would Mr. Cash approve of his fans collaborating with him on his last song? Is he the kind of artist who would have micro-managed every aspect of creative interpretation, as many do, or is he the kind that would willingly allow fans to play in his creative playground, as a growing number of transmedia creators are doing?

Companies and brands face this dilemma whenever they decide to allow their customers to create user-generated content. There have been disasters, like the Chevy Tahoe crowdsourced commercials, and successes, like the Doritos Super Bowl ads.

But what about artists? How do artists feel about covers? Some, like Prince, are against them, and even take their battles to court. Others, like Lady Gaga, who clearly understands the power of social media, are thrilled to death, and tweet about fan videos she finds and likes.

In other words, different creators make different choices about who can use their work, and how. And I believe it is their right to do so.

So, as much as I love The Johnny Cash Project, and as much as I am personally in favor of letting fans play in my own playground (which I am currently developing as part of my “Spirit In Realtime” science fiction series I’m writing), can someone please explain to me whether you think it’s okay to steal and use a dead man’s song for any purpose, even that of celebrating his life?

Comments
  1. Marrus says:

    I’ve had people come up with stories behind my paintings that were better than what I was thinking. I’ve had people string my entire body of work together into one story that was blatantly ridiculous. I’ve had people inspired by my work to write songs, poetry, their own art, which was hella flattering.

    Response to my work runs the gamut, but I’m happy to catalyze a larger conversation. However, someone taking my existent work, slapping their own paintstrokes on top of it, and hijacking my creation, not so much;)

    • jlsimons says:

      Well, painting over your images isn’t tribute, it’s destruction. But to stick with the analogy, they haven’t changed the music at all, just grafted their own creativity onto it. In your case, Marrus, it would be more like taking all of your paintings and turning them into animated frames for a music video. And what if you didn’t like the song “they” felt utterly and totally summed up your life and your work. And unless you’ve found a way to come back from the dead (living in NOLA, you might), you’re stuck for all eternity listening to it. Interesting notion, though. Who would they use? Celine Dion? Michael Jackson? No, wait. I know: Justin Bieber! Although, there’s something truly sick about imagining Awayke set to Britney Spears “Oops, I did it again!”

  2. Renee S. says:

    In the very beginning I thought these cg/photoship tricks of the eye were cool. These days, I tend to agree with you. I don’t think I’d appreciate anyone using one of my few published books in some way other than that for which it was intended. Therefore, I don’t agree with others’ works being compromised, either. For any reason.

    Good to see you posting again.

    A Fan

    • jlsimons says:

      Yeah, I’ve been so busy setting up social media for clients, and getting my marketing and advertising consultancy off the ground, I didn’t have the time or headspace. Let’s see if I can keep it up.

  3. This is an excellent point, and I have to say I think existing copyright law is far too strict (thank you Disney). I’m a huge proponent of expanding Fair Use, and remain firmly committed to the idea that creativity is much more an act of synthesis and alteration than of actual genesis.

    The central fact I can’t overlook in this hypothetical is that, as an artist (composer in my case), I’ll be dead. I’m all about profiting from my work, and possibly any immediate heirs as well (the way pensions are inherited, for example), but beyond that open the floodgates wide.

    • jlsimons says:

      Thanks for your comment, Vince. I think expanding, and clarifying, Fair Use is critically important, especially in today’s integrated, multi-platform world. Right now it is a bit murky. Where would rap music be without sampling… it adds context, contrast and flavor to some of my favorite songs. What about when bloggers use images they find on Google Search? If their sites are for commercial purposes, aren’t they violating copyright law? It’s one of the reasons I love Creative Commons so much. It’s a more sensible way to approach usage.

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