‘Get Up, Stand Up’ For… Who’s Rights Now?

If you read our recent post on the US’s new IP czar, Danny Marti, and his questionable ideas, you already saw much of this, but that was a (super, crazy) long post, and I just can’t stop thinking about the ridiculousness of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) using the title of a popular Bob Marley song to promote World Intellectual Property Day, which was held back on April 26th. Here’s the WIPO website about it: As you can see, the theme was “Get Up, Stand Up. For Music.” This is a play on the title of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ famous song “Get Up, Stand Up.” As you may know, this song was written by Bob Marley after touring Haiti, and was first released on the Wailers’ 1973 album Burnin’. That’s important because a few years ago, Bob Marley’s heirs sought to regain control of his copyrights from Universal Music (which got them when it bought Island Records) by going through the copyright termination process (which allows original artists to regain control over their copyrights years after assigning them to others). We’ve written a bunch about copyright termination in the past, though this case was a bit different — as it was under the old termination rules, rather than those in the 1976 Act (obviously, a recording from 1973 wasn’t recorded under the ’76 Act).

The end result? The court claimed that Marley wrote the song as a work made for hire and thus Universal could keep the copyright, and not give it back to the Marley Estate.

So, if we’re “getting up, standing up, for music,” what message is WIPO really sending here? That we should support giant multinational gatekeeper corporations that play legal games to keep the copyright and control from the actual artists and their heirs? Really?

The decision is even more bizarre and ridiculous if you’re even remotely familiar with things like the history of popular Jamaican music. Hell, even the history of reggae itself that led to Bob Marley becoming so famous. You had records that made their way from America that first influenced Jamaican music in the late 50s and early 60s, and without enough of it flowing into Jamaica, local record store owners started setting up their own recording studios, combining Jamaican and other Caribbean rhythms with American R&B to create entirely new kinds of music, but very much built off of American music: Jamaican shuffle, ska, rocksteady and, eventually, reggae. Some of the earliest songs were merely re-imaginings of American songs but with a Jamaican twist.

Hell, just look at Bob Marley’s own first album, The Wailing Wailers, which was put out by Studio One, the leading and biggest Jamaican studio for popular Jamaican music at the time. It included a cover of the American hit “What’s New Pussycat?” and, more importantly, the song “One Love” (in a very different version than the famous one you probably know — though, frankly, I prefer this original one). However, that version included a pretty clear copy of Curtis Mayfield’s amazing tune “People Get Ready,” which was released the same year — but Mayfield wasn’t credited at all, to make sure there were no copyright issues.

You can find that kind of story repeated throughout the history of popular Jamaican music, and it was this kind of regular copying, building on and remixing of others’ works, that helped make Jamaican music — and Bob Marley, in particular — so popular.

In fact, in an effort to produce more new records more quickly, it was pretty common for producers/sound system operators in Jamaica to get a bunch of studio musicians together to record a bunch of backing tracks, or “riddims” and then let a whole bunch of different singers sing different songs over them. You can find tons of classic old Jamaican songs with identical backing tracks. Here’s Sound Dimension’s “Real Rock” which you can probably find on dozens of reggae songs, such as Dennis Brown’s “Stop that Fussing & Fighting”, or Willi Williams’ “Armagideon Time” (which was famously covered by the Clash a few years later).

Or, you have Jamaican bands taking American hits and writing entirely different lyrics. Ever hear the Gaylads doing “Stop Making Love”? That song sound familiar? Of course it does, it’s the Four Tops’ “Same Old Song”.

And, of course, nearly all of this happened almost entirely in the absence of any real copyright laws. An explosion of creativity and music, that you can then take and trace a fairly straight line from Jamaican reggae to Jamaican dancehall to American hip hop and onward.

Yet, we have WIPO pointing back to all of this as an example of the need to “get up, stand up” for stronger copyright laws for music? Really?

Now, to be clear, the situation in Jamaica for musicians wasn’t always great. Producers/sound system operators frequently screwed over artists. The underlying aspects of the story in The Harder They Come is only loosely fictionalized. Some musicians were screwed over, and what little bits of copyright law that were actually used, it was generally used to benefit gatekeepers over the artists — which is how Bob Marley’s heirs were left in a situation in which Universal Music fought and won in court to keep those copyrights from going back to the Marley estate.

Given all that, it’s a mystery as to why anyone involved in intellectual property could possibly think that referencing Bob Marley, Jamaican music, or the song “Get Up, Stand Up” would even remotely make sense for “World Intellectual Property Day.” The entire song and the history behind it is more of a condemnation of intellectual property and how it was often used to harm artists. But, of course, the geniuses at WIPO don’t know much about actual culture. They just saw an opportunity to co-opt a popular concept and use it to their own advantage. That’s perfectly fine of course, but it does make me wonder if WIPO gave Marley’s heirs any compensation for using the title of his song? Or, does WIPO not really believe in “standing up” for that sort of thing?

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