Greg Ham’s death should be a reminder that we need to reform the broken parts of the Copyright Act

Reading about the death of Men At Work saxophonist/flautist Greg Ham last week, one aspect in particular made me rather angry:

Friend and local pharmacist David Nolte, who discovered his body, says Ham felt responsible for the copyright controversy.

“He was a very sensitive person. It really cut him apart,” he said.

“He did say ‘That’s all they’ll ever remember me by’. It gutted him really … I don’t want to say it destroyed him or anything, but it really did cut him up.”

The hideously unjust and destructive “Down Under” case, and its effect on a man who gave so much to the country, call out for legislative reform.

The fact that Australia has – through absurd provisions in the Copyright Act that turn a musical reference into some sort of plagiarism, rather than an entirely artistically legitimate fair use, and that keep an almost fifty year old nationally-significant song out of the public domain – treated a man who made such an important contribution to our musical life so horribly, deeply annoys me.

Why is the length of time before a work enters the public domain so obscenely long? The life of the author plus seventy years? I mean, yes, I know why – because the US copyright terms were corruptly extended due to the lobbying of the Disney company, and because John Howard gave us the nationally destructive Australia-US FTA locking in those absurd provisions. But why are the rest of us, through our politicians, so committed to holding back the creation of cultural language? To locking down artistic works so that subsequent artists can’t refer to them and can’t build on them?

Why is a brief musical reference in a song not “fair use”? Great writers have always referred to each other’s work all the time with quotes and paraphrases. It’s keeping our creative heritage alive. It’s enriching our cultural life. It’s not “plagiarism”. They’re not simply trying to flog off an earlier artist’s work – they’re honouring it and its importance in the culture.

Greg Ham was a creative artist, not a plagiarist. Someone who gave to this country and enriched it, not someone who deserved to be ground into the dirt by shameless copyright opportunists and the broken system that enables them. It infuriates me that he died thinking that he was going to be remembered as some kind of cheap rip-off thief, rather than the significant Australian musician he was.

The Australian Law Reform Commission is about to review the Copyright Act – it might be worth making a submission. Copyright terms need to be shorter, and fair use like Down Under protected. It’s too late for Ham – but let’s not do it to another artist.

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6 responses to “Greg Ham’s death should be a reminder that we need to reform the broken parts of the Copyright Act

  1. That Disney lawyer character who pops up on the Simpsons is getting scarily more real by the minute.

    Oh, and note to the High Court – since when is “Kookaburra Sits” played in a minor key?

  2. Couldn’t agree more Jeremy. I’d like to think the scumbags at Larrikin/Musical Sales Group have some sense of shame, but I’m not holding my breath.

  3. I would not hold my breath waiting for any alteration to the copyright act. I just read through McClelland’s keynote address and get a feeling that the only concern is for the money generated.
    They (copyright industry) generated $97.7 billion – 10.3 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product.And earned more than $6.8 billion in exports – that is, 4.1 per cent of the Australian total. .
    When that sort of money is at stake, Joe Public is not even going to be considered.

  4. And think of how much money would be at stake if authors, movie directors, musicians, etc didn’t have to waste a huge chunk of their earnings on lawyers defending themselves from the representatives of long-dead authors who create nothing.

    I was pessimistic about copyright reform too once, but I think incidents like SOPA/PIPA and the Wikipedia blackout have finally brought this home to a lot of people. You can’t swing a lolcat on the Internet these days without hitting a copyright landmine and ordinary people are getting sick of it. The growth of the Pirate Party in Europe is one example of people starting to vote this issue in significant numbers.

  5. Jeremy, I am surprised to find I am in agreement with not one, but two of your recent posts. Your Anzac post is remarkably free of anti-war agenda, and this copyright post is spot on. Well done.

    Why is a brief musical reference in a song not “fair use”? Great writers have always referred to each other’s work all the time with quotes and paraphrases. It’s keeping our creative heritage alive. It’s enriching our cultural life. It’s not “plagiarism”. They’re not simply trying to flog off an earlier artist’s work – they’re honouring it and its importance in the culture.

    Greg Ham’s death was due to many more factors than the decision by the court to award copyright to those dastardly publishing moguls, but no doubt it played a part.

    Rightfully, one of your commenters has recognised that one song was in a major key, the other in a minor key, thus reinforcing your premise that the line was a ‘musical quote’, not the basis of the song. Musical quotes have been around as long as music has. The classicists recognised this.

    Richard Strauss quoted the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony (No. 3) in his Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings. Igor Stravinsky quoted a theme from Franz Schubert’s Marche Militaire No. 1 in D in his Circus Polka.

    Jazz greats Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis quoted popular songs ad finitum in their music, and therefore on subsequent recordings.

    To give someone who is not of the music profession authority to rule on an issue of musicality is absurd.

  6. Splatterbottom

    Jeremy, I agree with your stance on IP issues, but I wouldn’t have dragged Ham’s tragedy into the debate.

    On the IP front, I expect Conroy will now try to effect a statutory reversal of the iinet decision. The last thing we need is to have ISPs acting as Big Brother.

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