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.