T Bone Burnett Delivers Scathing Message to Copyright Office, Urging Reform: 'Our Culture Is At Stake'

Courtesy Photo
T Bone Burnett on the Broken DMCA Safe Harbors.

T Bone Burnett today submitted a five minute video to the U.S. Copyright Office that issued a scathing critique of current copyright laws, taking aim at "mega corporations and web moguls" that "are enriching themselves off the artistic, cultural and economic value everyone else creates," and urging Congress to fix a copyright system that he says threatens the ability of artists and creators to make a living.

At issue is section 512 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) signed in 1998, which includes the "safe harbor" provisions that protect digital service providers such as YouTube from copyright infringement litigation by outlining a system to deal with illegal copyrighted material uploaded to its platform. Burnett, who serves on the advisory board of the Content Creators Coalition (c3) and submitted the video on behalf of the organization, says the current safe harbors provision has failed, allowing the internet to become a "digital black hole."

"The problems are familiar," he says soberly into the camera. "They are well described in the record of these proceedings from the broken-Sisyphus climb of 'notice and takedown' to the gunpoint negotiations and pittance wages forced upon creators by the Google monopoly... Creators must be given meaningful tools to earn a living from their art."

Congress has undertaken a study to review the DMCA, which has united artists, industry advocate groups and lawmakers in a battle against tech industry trade groups in determining how to fix a system that creators say is woefully out of date. In the past year, organizations such as the MusicFirst Coalition, the Recording Academy and A-list artists such as Katy Perry, Steven Tyler, Lionel Richie and Nile Rodgers, among others, have all urged Congress to overhaul the DMCA's safe harbor provisions.

Burnett's video comes after Congress asked for comments on its first proposal for copyright change, released on Dec. 8, which largely focused on an organizational re-structuring and further Congressional oversight of the Copyright Office.

"The problem here isn’t merely technology; creators welcome the digital revolution and its facility to connect, amplify and inspire," Burnett says. "The problem is business models designed to scrape away value rather than fuel new creation, focused on taking rather than making."

Check out Burnett's video above, and read a full transcript of his message below.

In its early days, the internet was hailed as a panacea, a global community unshackled from corporate, military or government control, ready to equalize and connect the world. One of its early false prophets named it a “culture of the mind” that "all may enter without privilege or prejudice." But that’s not what we got.

Instead of opening up minds, it has closed them down, becoming a restrictive, abusive place where women, people of color and anyone marked different are shunned, attacked and shouted down. 2016 laid bare how cyberspace hasn’t rationalized dialog -- it’s become a megaphone for propaganda and fake news where it’s easier to demagogue and divide than ever. Dreams of a stronger democracy have given way to foreign hackers and corporate manipulation. And for artists and creators, instead of amplifying our voices to lead the fight for change, it undermines and silences us.

The internet, with all its promise and beauty, threatens to destroy what it was supposed to save. We can’t let that happen.

This Copyright Office proceeding is focused on the legal safe harbors in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the law that was supposed to balance the internet’s openness with creators’ ability to earn a living wage from their work. Those safe harbors have failed.

The problems are familiar. They are well described in the record of these proceedings from the broken-Sisyphus climb of “notice and takedown” to the gunpoint negotiations and pittance wages forced upon creators by the Google monopoly.

The big tech itopians can track us across dozens of networks, devices and profiles to bombard us with micro-targeted ads, but they can’t even identify unauthorized copies of our work and keep them off their own servers and systems -- or they won’t.

The problem here isn’t merely technology; creators welcome the digital revolution and its facility to connect, amplify and inspire. A modern recording studio looks more like a cockpit than a honky tonk, and that’s just fine. The problem is business models designed to scrape away value rather than fuel new creation, focused on taking rather than making.

For technology to earn its place as the rightful partner of tomorrow’s creators, we need change. The original intent of safe harbors must be realized so only responsible actors earn their protection, not those who actively profit from the abuse and exploitation of creators' work. Technology must not road block progress in a pointless arms race of whack-a-mole and digital deception. Creators must be given meaningful tools to earn a living from their art.

The false prophets of the internet may have imagined an egalitarian, open source, creative wonderland, but what we got instead was an exploitative digital black hole that benefits a handful of mega corporations and web moguls. They are enriching themselves off the artistic, cultural and economic value everyone else creates.

But artists and creators will never bow to that. We will never accept an internet that turns its back on the vitality, optimism and hope from which it was born. We will never allow our democracy to become a mere series of pseudo-events designed to manipulate people into spending money. Everyone with a stake in the internet’s success and the health of our creative democracy must work together to make this right.

It’s time for Congress to close the loopholes in section 512 of the DMCA. Our culture is at stake. And it’s time for musicians to join with us, c3 (Content Creators Coalition), to make that happen. Your livelihood depends on it.

On behalf of music creators, thank you to the Copyright Office for this proceeding and for considering these views.