Ani DiFranco: copyright in an open source culture

Difranco I spent the morning removing Ani DiFranco lyrics from my book manuscript.  I was obliged to do so because DiFranco had refused me permission to use them, despite two emails to Righteous Babe Records that were thorough, pointed and courtesy. 

It’s not as if DiFranco had anything to fear from this anthropologist.  My treatment was laudatory.  I regard her as a transformational exemplar. Here’s my opening sentence for her from the book.

Ani DiFranco is a phenomenon, largely self taught, almost entirely self invented, the creator of a genre of music, the founder of her own record company, and probably the most gifted feminist performer at work in the U.S. today.

And it’s not like I was asking for the catalogue, probably around 130 words taken from a variety of songs.   I think this represents a very nervous eye on the copyright watch. 

DiFranco is entitled to control copyright in this way, but it is also worth observing that she has made a career mocking music labels for their narrow, controlling ways.  Apparently, it’s ok for her to act this way. 

And odd too.  This is not the DiFranco you think you see on stage and in the ones and zeros.  I guess this tells us that she never was what she contrived to seem, a champion of an open source culture. 

DiFranco’s contribution to the open source culture came in the powerful argument that women should decide who they are, not men, and that individual women should decide who they are, not groups of women.  Or to use the more particular language of open source, DiFranco seemed to say that every women has the right to do her own coding, to construct herself according to her own objectives out of our her scripts and routines, and that she is free  to refuse "sealed code" from higher authorities and the originating software provider.

The second possibility is that DiFranco is aging, changing, narrowing, risking less and controlling more. 

I guess the transformational career continues. 

12 thoughts on “Ani DiFranco: copyright in an open source culture

  1. Jamie

    Unfortunately I don’t know this singer (I’m assuming she’s an American phenomenon, undiscovered to the rest of the world!). Since I don’t know of her work I can’t comment on whether or not she is being hypocritical as you suggest. However, these days where small and rather obscure singer/songwriters are from one day to another transformed into global media phenomenon thanks largely to the open source concept it seems like a very short-sighted approach to deny you the use of some of her texts. UK band Arctic Monkeys started in relative obscurity by letting people download their music for free off their website. The success of this approach in turn led them to have several top UK/European chart hits! Although many established artists/labels are having difficulty responding to the changing dynamics of the Internet (music piracy, ITunes, etc), it seems to be having a positive effect on many up and coming artists that suddenly become more visible and are able to attract much larger audiences to their music than ever before. In other words, DeFranco should perhaps let admirers of her music and lyrics use them as inspiration in their own work because it could perhaps benefit her own career in the long run…!

  2. Ethan

    Grant, I’m not sure ‘open source culture’ is the right metaphor here. As far as I can tell, she made a career mocking labels for screwing artists and hoarding all the rights & profits. (She and Prince share this sentiment.) Her fight has been to help creators maintain their rights and their profits, rather than for ‘open source’ music or whatnot. I think it would be perfectly consistent with her politics for her to be protective of her intellectual property. After all, she’s not only reaping all the rewards, she’s also taking all the risks.
    All that said, it does seem stingy that her company didn’t grant you permission to use excerpts.

  3. debbie millman

    Wow, I am really shocked. Shocked! Jamie, she is an American phenomenon, and she is truly one of the most gifted singer/songwriters of the last thirty years. Frankly, I put her in the same category as Joni Mitchell in regard to talent and versatility.

    Several months ago I posted a video on my blog from YouTube featuring DiFranco performing spoken word poetry on an episode of Def Jam. After several weeks, I went back to view it again, and POOF! it was gone. I guess her IP people got to YouTube as well. I highly doubt it was the Def Jam folks given how many other Def Jam vids are still up.

    I can’t imagine why DiFranco won’t allow her work to be shared. It is the exact opposite of what I’d expect from her. In fact, given her stance against labels, I would have thought she’d be a proponent of new media.

    Perhaps she objected to the term “feminist”? From what I’ve read about her and know of her work, I understand she is perplexed by verbal labels as well. Listen to the song “Little Plastic Castles” from the same-titled CD for a POV.

  4. Eric Nehrlich

    I think she’s been burned by being too sharing in the past. I seem to recall her mentioning at one of her concerts that she’d been asked by some girl for the performance rights to 32 Flavors, and said “Sure, why not?”, figuring that it was a local performer. Next thing DiFranco knew, that girl was on the radio taking credit for DiFranco’s song, as she was backed by one of the music labels who had the muscle to get airplay. I’d imagine it doesn’t take too many incidents of that sort before one gets wary about these sorts of requests.

  5. rw

    Is copyright control/open source/etc really the right framework here?

    Maybe she didn’t want her words quoted because she — or her people — had some kind of issue with the actual book? I don’t know what the book is, but if she (or her people) perceived as a business/marketing book, maybe they didn’t want to be seen as somehow endorsing it?

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  7. Grant

    Everyone has been gallant in reply. But I think none of these defenses applies. Yes, DiFranco may be unhappy with my use of the term feminism, but surely that’s a quibble. Her music shows no such post-modernist nicety and uses language roundly and robustly. Furthermore, this is a book from a university press that wants to quote a handful of words. Permission for this right is being requested and would be made explicit. It’s hard to see how this can be seen a risk to copyright. And finally, the book is not a marketing book. It’s anthropology and anthropology only, so Rob’s query doesn’t seem to apply either. DiFranco has stood against corporate narrowness and nervousness. It hardly seem fair that she should practice what she preaches against. Last point: I think the open source culture notion does apply. After all, DiFranco is a champion that prevailing cultural codes not be allowed to prevail, that the individual should have the right to intercede. I don’t think this is too metaphorical of me. As a fan of DiFranco’s music, I think I can say with confidence that it would not be too metaphorical of her. Thanks to everyone for their comments. Grant

  8. Nicole

    Or, maybe she had other reasons entirely for not letting you publish her lyrics. Maybe the point is that that is her right as a private citizen to say yes or to say no. This is nothing but a contrived, polite polemic. You pretty much give two reasons why she could refuse you, either it’s simply principle or she’s aging.

    Hmm, maybe there are more than two reasons? Maybe she thought you seemed bitter, begrudging, and demanding, and simply didn’t want to deal with you? You give lengthy opinions about Ani and your tiring “obligations.” Yet you give nothing of her reasoning or response, except that you were rejected. Well, for all we know maybe you did something to piss this righteous babe off! There is obviously more than one side to this story, bub.

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  10. boyhowdy

    Unfortunately, it seems Ani’s people don’t understand how copyright law works, either.

    I just received a takedown notice after posting her COVER of Pete Seeger’s song My Name Is Lisa Kalvelage on my blog. Last I checked, however, performances could not be copyrighted; only compositions. And unlike Ani, Pete is known for sharing his work, like good folkies do.

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