Satan, Ownership, Free Culture, and the Public Domain

Satan, Ownership, Free Culture, and the Public Domain June 30, 2018

“And what do you do in the dark, Lucifer?”

“I walk and … there are voices in the dark. I listen to the voices. They promise me things, ask me questions, whisper and plead, and I ignore them. I steel myself and gaze at the city. It is the only way I have of testing myself.” – Neil Gaiman, Murder Mysteries

Historical Religious Characters are Free to Use for All

One of the reasons that religious mythologies persist in culture is partly an issue of distribution and availability. The characters of religions are public domain characters that everyone is free to reuse and reimagine in whatever way suits them, and then distribute those reimaginings freely without concern for licensing or ownership. Members of Asatru, for example, can’t sue Marvel for likeness right claims over the use of Thor no matter how unflattering they may find such a depiction. Likewise the Abrahamic faiths have no claim to litigate against portrayals of Satan or Lucifer by anyone either. Normally we talk about this in terms of blasphemy, and how in a pluralist society that values freedom of thought such reinterpretation is a matter of free expression. It is in that spirit that I began this column with one reimagining: Gaiman’s image of Lucifer walking in the darkness and listening to the voices there. Because I’m going to write today about copyright law and music instead of the topics dominating our headlines.

Image Credit: Cristopher Dombres, Public Domain via Flickr

Satanic organizations and individuals bicker endlessly about what is and isn’t appropriately ‘Satanic’. It is a joyous hassle of such a diverse collection of individuals. Yet regardless of affiliation, guiding credos, laws, tenets, or individual beliefs, if there is one consistent thread among Satanists it is that one should use whatever legal means are available to you to better yourself and your situation in life. That in itself can be interpreted any number of ways, but I think it’s safe to say that it is overwhelmingly agreed upon in principle.

Many of the topics in our political zeitgeist are contentious and like every other demographic Satanists are widely divided on most of them. There are pro-Trump Satanists in favor of his immigration and tariff policies, pro-choice Satanists disturbed by the announcement of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, endless discussions around other hot button issues like the environment and animal rights, and of course contentious discussion of what if any limits there should be on freedom of speech. All demographics, not just Satanists, are grappling with these conflicts. As such, they are happening ‘in the light’ of the public square.

But in the ‘dark’ of lesser known and unnoticed legislation, amid the military base namings and non-binding resolutions that have no real consequence, there are other things happening. They are largely ignored and seen as inconsequential, but if you spend time listening and considering what they say, you start to think that perhaps they might actually be really important.

So, I want to explain what is going on in the shadows with copyright law, where your ability to build on the works of others is, once again, under very real threat.

Art Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum

It is my personal opinion that the arts are incredibly undervalued in our culture. Among Satanists I don’t think that is a particularly contentious position. It is an opinion of mine that solidified in 2006 when Teach For America and the Amgen Foundation launched the STEM Initiative. It isn’t that I think science, technology, engineering, and math are unimportant; they are necessary. But it would have been so easy to include arts education as equally important and have called it the STEAM Initiative instead. Unfortunately the arts were not included in that initiative and I believe we’ve suffered for a lack of focus on it. We particularly suffer when the breeding ground for new art is monopolized by the owners of existing art. It creates a barrier to entry for young artists to build on past ideas in a timely manner. Art, unlike our normal rational discourse, has the unique ability to address emotional subjects that are difficult to put in words, and borrowing from the art of the past to create new work is a very important part of that tradition.

This brings me to House Resolution 3301, the Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society (the CLASSICS) Act, currently sitting in the House Judiciary Committee (and the corresponding Senate Bill 2393). Under current law, because of changes to copyright protections over time, pre-1972 sound recordings are caught in something of a legal limbo. They’re ineligible for federal copyright status even though other media like books and movies are. That means, depending on state law, digital platforms and artists may well be able to transmit those recordings without having to pay any royalties even though they aren’t in the public domain.

Bipartisanship via Obscurity Only Benefits Lobbyists

Now, if you happen to be the rights-owner of any of those recordings then you would understandably be kind of bummed that you’re missing out on potential royalty money. It would certainly be in your best interests to try to get an act like this enacted into law. It may even be in your interests if you are employed by the owners of those recordings.

But, that is certainly not most people. In fact most of these recordings belong to an increasingly small number of powerful media conglomerates.

Since this is not a ‘sexy’ topic that most people even consider there is no nightly news poll on the networks. There are no Rasmussen or Gallup data on the opinions of the electorate regarding this legislation. Even if there were, since most people are completely unaware of the bill they would likely say that people have ‘no opinion’.

Yet, what if we were to ask people if they support legislation that increases the control of giant media conglomerates and allows them to start reaping profits from media that is currently, at least federally, free to use? I think it’s fair to say that many people across the political spectrum, who are already dismayed at the power and influence big media companies have to control information and lobby congress, might reconsider. They might further still find it suspicious, knowing that these big companies donate to political candidates based on their commitment to further friendly policies, that a companion piece of legislation called the Music Modernization Act, which creates a massive digital rights database and compliance scheme, passed the House of Representatives with a unanimous vote of 415 to 0.

Think about that. The House of Representatives can barely agree on what to have for lunch. But they all suspiciously agree that these poor massive recording companies just desperately need more money. Isn’t that interesting?

The Stagnant Public Domain

Another interesting feature of the CLASSICS Act is that it extends these new protections to audio recordings all the way back to 1927 and grants these protections to all of those recordings between 1927 and 1972 until the year 2067. This sets up a situation where someone in the future could be subject to huge statutory fines for using a recording that’s up to 144 years old. To put that in perspective, consider being liable for copyright violations by distributing a podcast called ‘Greatest Hits of the 1880s” today.

Does that seem reasonable or just? Does that sound to you, dear reader, like congress is fulfilling it’s constitutional mandate to limit the time such protections exist to promote the useful arts? Dare I suggest that by extending protections to such a ridiculous exaggeration it in fact infringes on the first amendment rights of citizens to integrate older works into their new art free of legal barriers to entry set up to protect multinational conglomerates? I do so dare.

What does this have to do with Satanism Again?

It isn’t my place to say what a Satanist should or shouldn’t think about these kinds of issues, if you’re a record executive, for example, I couldn’t fault your logic at all for supporting this kind of legislation and that’d be your right. However, everyone else in the creative arts have equal right to know that the government is attempting to secure protections that don’t currently exist that may well hamper their ability to pursue their own goals.

I do think though, that it’s in the spirit of our broader Satanic ethos to at least bring such issues to light for consideration. It’s all too easy to get caught up in the news cycle’s dominant issues and far easier to only pay attention to those issues without considering others that are hidden off the beaten path of national media. There are numerous issues that might affect your thinking on other choices you may have to make. In this instance, these laws can have a dramatic effect on what media you are free to use in creating your own art (or if you are not a creative person what media might be available for you to consume). I think Satanists can largely agree that these kinds of decisions can play a role in trying to shape the world to be more to your liking.

It also serves as a stark reminder on the illusionary traps of representation we can fall prey to. The oddly bipartisan support for the Music Modernization Act demonstrates the power that moneyed interests can have on those we chose to represent us. Often they’re making decisions we may not even be aware of that they are making because we’re distracted by other things. That’s certainly worth considering.

Anyway Neil Gaiman’s “Murder Mysteries”

Good story. Two gay angels fall in love. Lucifer gets mad at God when one of them gets punished for killing the other one. Check it out sometime.

About Jack Matirko
Jack Matirko is an activist, blogger, and podcaster focussing on issues of church and state separation. He runs Patheos' Satanic Blog For Infernal Use Only (patheos.com/blogs/infernal), co-hosts the Naked Diner Podcast (patreon.com/nakeddiner), and is a member of The Satanic Temple-Arizona Chapter. His opinions are his own. To contribute to his work please consider becoming a patron of his podcast. You can read more about the author here.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!