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Citizen DJ, Noah Webster and the Value of Copyright

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Brian Foo, the Library of Congress 2020 Innovator in Residence and the creator of Citizen DJ, doesn’t always hang out like this. But it’s fun when he does. Photo: Shawn Miller.

It started, the story goes, with a back-to-school jam in the Bronx in 1973. There, in a basement rec room, DJ Kool Herc — aka Clive Campbell — stood between two turntables, switching between records to extend the instrumental breaks so his sister’s friends could dance longer. His parties became so popular he had to move them to clubs and even outdoors.

The movement he’s often credited with igniting — hip-hop — dominates music today. Fans can now mix their own beats from a source not often associated with the genre: the Library of Congress.

Citizen DJ, an experimental music sampling tool that launched on the Library’s website this summer, enables musicians to browse the Library’s collections — vintage audio, interviews, musical performances — and integrate them into their own productions.

The tool combines public-domain content — works available for anyone to use — with material copyright owners have consented to include. It is the brainchild of Brian Foo, computer scientist, visual artist and one-time break dancer. He’s also one of the Library’s innovators in residence, a program of LC Labs that encourages creative use of the Library’s digital collections.

“I was very much embedded in hip-hop culture and later in life appreciated sampling and collage and referencing as means for self-expression through historical interrogation,” Foo said.

Foo’s reuse of content carries out a vision from America’s earliest days. The framers wrote copyright into the Constitution to “promote the progress of science and useful arts” — that is, to add to the growing nation’s wealth of culture and knowledge.

Copyright law gives creators certain exclusive rights to benefit from their works for a limited time.  After the copyright term expires, the works become free to use and reuse. By allowing early Americans to reap the rewards of their efforts — by selling their books or maps, for example — the framers intended to encourage creativity. By limiting the term of copyright protection, they aimed to make knowledge accessible and foster still more creativity.

Noah Webster, whose spelling book and dictionary became staples of American education. Prints and Photographs Division.

Noah Webster — famous for his dictionary — played an outsized role establishing copyright in U.S. law. On Aug. 14, 1783, Webster obtained a Connecticut copyright for his 120-page spelling book.

Webster’s small volume became America’s first bestseller — schools that had closed during the Revolutionary War were reopening and needed books. The first 5,000-copy print run sold out within nine months and, the following year, the book sold 500 to 1,000 copies a day. Webster’s earnings allowed him to support his family and compile his dictionary.

His state, Connecticut, was the first to enact a copyright law — individual states had such laws before copyright was written into the Constitution. After Webster registered his book, he toured the country to press other states and the new federal government to implement copyright laws. His efforts earned him the moniker “father of copyright.”

Jedidiah Morse, author of bestselling geographies, not long afterward earned the distinction of filing the first reported federal copyright case. Represented by statesman Alexander Hamilton, Morse sued New York City bookseller John Reid for selling a geography that borrowed liberally from Morse’s work. Reid was ordered in April 1798 to cease publishing the offending geography and to pay Morse $262.50.

The U.S. Copyright Office, which today administers the copyright system within the Library, oversees the world’s largest database of copyrighted works and copyright ownership information.

Like Foo, many of these creators drew on works of earlier artists. Edgar Allan Poe’s poems, for example, gave rise to a long list of musical compositions — “Nevermore” by the rock band Queen, “The Fall of the House of Usher” by composer Philip Glass, versions of “Annabel” by Frankie Laine, Joan Baez and Stevie Nicks.

Bob Dylan pays tribute in his music to poets William Blake, Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Archibald MacLeish — a Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944. The web series “Epic Rap Battles of History” draws on Dr. Seuss, Dickens and other literary figures. Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” has inspired pop music lyrics, episodes of “Twilight Zone” and “Battlestar Galactica” and more than a few commercials.

Foo’s ambition is to share the riches of the Library with new creative audiences. Citizen DJ features thousands of sound clips — each about a second long — from holdings across the institution.

Aspiring composers can draw on the Joe Smith collection, for example, featuring interviews with music legends such as Elton John, Ben E. King, Aerosmith. Or, they can use the Tony Schwartz collection of New York City soundscapes: honking horns, jackhammers, snippets of conversation. Or, they can incorporate audio from a Library musical performance by U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo, who donated reuse rights to the performance.

“From a copyright point of view, we have a really high bar that we’re setting,” Foo said. “We want to be able to say from a legal point of view, you can use this material for creative reuse, even commercial.”

Like Foo, documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Coffman incorporates earlier works into something entirely new, a long tradition in filmmaking — the blockbusters “The Wizard of Oz,” the “Harry Potter” film series and “Avengers: Endgame” are but a few examples of motion pictures adapted from literary works.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Ken Burns present Elizabeth Coffman the Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for her film “Flannery,” 2019. Photo credit: Shawn Miller.

Last fall, Coffman was awarded the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film for “Flannery,” a feature-length documentary she produced and directed with Mark Bosco about Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor.

Because of the film’s widespread distribution and broadcast potential, “I knew it needed copyright protection,” Coffman said.

Under current U.S. law, copyright protection takes effect the moment a work is created. But timely registration with the U.S. Copyright Office is required to secure certain remedies in cases alleging copyright infringement. So, Coffman registered “Flannery” with the Copyright Office once the film was completed.

That final step was probably the easiest task related to the film.

Telling O’Connor’s story required an intensive search for archival footage that was “funny, dark, weird,” reflecting the writer’s life and iconic fiction, Coffman said. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Coffman was able to hire two research assistants to help her track down materials, including “every photograph we could possibly find of O’Connor,” Coffman said. The grant also supported rights clearance, including payments to copyright owners for reuse of content, and the hiring of a composer and actors. Actress Mary Steenburgen narrated O’Connor’s voice. Three animators worked up graphics.

“Flannery had a good analogy for filmmaking,” Coffman said in her acceptance speech. “Writing is like giving birth to a piano sideways. Those who persevere are either talented or nuts.”

But in the end, Coffman said that documenting the writer’s place in American literature and winning the prize ended up being “one of the highlights of my life.”

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Comments (4)

  1. Hi, I’m wondering if there is a comprehensive list of public sound recordings that are available for creative and commercial use. I’d love to track that down. Thank you for a great blog. -G

    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks for writing. Alas, I don’t think so — our lists are limited to what are in our collections — but you can always use the Ask a Librarian feature, and one of our librarians will try to track down a better answer for you.

      All best,

    • yep!

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