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Rights of the Dead

By Christopher Moore | December 19, 2005

John Perry Barlow, the American electronic freedom guru, is presented to us as the former lyricist for the Grateful Dead. What rock banks have lyricists? one asks churlishly, but no matter. It sounds more imposing than “he used to be a songwriter.”

Barlow has always used The Grateful Dead as exemplars of his vision for the extinction of intellectual property.

If you did not hear The Dead live, you did not hear them. As a performance band, rarely performing the same song the same way twice, the Dead prospered on performance revenues. They encouraged fans to make and circulate their own tapes of Dead music. The more people heard Dead tapes, the more they flocked to Dead shows.

Here was the root of Barlow’s vision for creative work. Give it away, and you will make a living somewhere else. This gradually became strengthened into policy proposals. In the new digital universe, you must give it away; you must consent to have it appropriated. You can make your living somewhere else, though just how is not our problem. Hey, it works for the Grateful Dead. Who are you to question it.?

Today, the Grateful Dead no longer tour. (Not from losing John Perry Barlow, more from losing Jerry Garcia.) Since the band no longer tours, it no longer has concert income.

The Dead still feel they ought to be rewarded for the value they still give us. Now that they no longer have concert revenue, they want to live on the proceeds of their music. And selling rights to their music has puts them in conflict with the Deadhead ethic of “Grateful Dead music belongs to us.”

So far the Deadheads have won this conflict. The Dead, after a generation of encouraging rip and burn, are finding it hard to defend their right to sell rights to their music, rather than having it continue to be appropriated. For them, Barlow’s future is already, well, dead: they can’t get paid for their work and they don’t have alternate revenues from it.

Probably the Grateful Dead and their survivors have a certain sufficiency set aside. But their examples demonstrates again what the Barlow rules mean to a lot of artists. Deprived of rights to their own work (even as it goes on being shared and appreciated), they will simply be plundered of the value they have contributed.

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