What hides in the liner notes of your data

Gianfranco Cecconi

A particular legal topic can still baffle the data sharing community, even today: the “database rights”. If you’re among the privileged ones who get it, read no further and enjoy a drink, pleased by your achievement. Besides, my gross, pragmatic explanation won’t leave you satisfied if you're a legal buff.

But suppose you still are uncertain about what database rights are. In that case, it’s useful for you to know that the EU’s proposal for the Data Act, due to become a regulation sometime before 2024, will revise the topic, as it was defined initially in the Database Directive (AKA “Directive 96/9/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 March 1996 on the legal protection of databases”). It’s about time you address that gap in your data literacy. I’ll take the opportunity to explain it by leveraging the cornucopia that is hip hop culture.

Most hip hop is based on sampling pre-existing music. The practice started with DJ culture in the 1970s, well before the digital era, using turntables. The idea was not necessarily original: in 1937 experimental composer John Cage predicted that the same machines invented for music reproduction — the record player and the radio — could and would actually be used for music production, and he gave it a try himself with a 1939 piece called “Imaginary Landscape No. 1”, in which he used three turntables.

Problem is, records don’t come for free, but with a lot of strings attached, well beyond the price of your Spotify subscription.

Of course, you regularly read your vinyls’ liner notes… I mean, your CDs’… I mean, OK, I give up; you only listen to music on Spotify these days. However, when you still had to get your music from the high street, music came on vinyl records protected in paper and cardboard, and with something called “liner notes”. These overcrowded sheets of paper offered you the lyrics to the songs and their credits. Some cryptic information about “publishing rights” and “master rights" are among those credits.

Publishing rights are the easy ones. They represent the rights one can exercise because they composed the track “in the abstract”, including notes and lyrics. These are usually shared — in various proportions—between the composer, the writer of the lyrics, and the publishing company. Master rights instead represent the rights related to a particular recording of the composition. Most commonly, the record company can exercise those, but not necessarily: they could be with the performer, too. When a hip hop producer decides to sample a song to re-use it in their track, they need to clear either or both of these rights. By re-using even a few seconds of the original track, they will be most likely re-using both the music and lyrics in the abstract and how those actually sounded in the record, with the actual voice of the artist, the music produced by the musicians etc. You can read more in “Creative License — The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling” by K. McLeod and P. Dicola, 2011.

In one of my examples on SoundCloud, I’ve humbly homebrewed the first few seconds of De La Soul’s single “Eye Know”, by using the same samples they used back in 1989. Three songs come together, in a relatively simple way, with just a few adjustments to their playback speed.

The fact that I’ve purchased and have here with me Steely Dan’s “Aja” — the record the song “Peg” belongs to — cannot help me. It’s 3 songs, 6 potential rights infringements, and many people to get angry: MCs, DJs, producers, the original musicians of the recordings that were sampled, three recording studio staff etc. etc… The common legal practice would say that what I’ve done is “fair use”: I am not making money out of this, just “educating” my readers, and I will likely be forgiven. Listen to the original recording here... if “original” is the right word, in your vocabulary.

When dealing with data rather than songs, the equivalent to the master rights are the database rights. Database rights exist to recognise the investment made in compiling that dataset, like master rights recognize the investment in producing the audio recording, whatever its contents, whether an original song or one in the public domain, say twinkle twinkle little star.

Intellectual property rights could be claimed on original, creative work or ideas captured in the data. But if the data is just a collection of dumb information — say, the list of addresses in a city — there’s not much creativity there. Still, an effort is required to put the dataset together, ensure its quality, maintain it, etc. This is why — unless they are published in the open willingly — those lists of dumb addresses are, in many countries, commercial datasets protected jealously and subject to battles between activist developers and governments.

The Data Act will clarify the role of database rights and their application to databases resulting from use cases that did not exist at the time of the original legislation in 1996, like data generated or obtained by IoT devices. Shall the work done by IoT robots be recognized? Follow the evolution of the legislative proposal to find out.

Now that I think about it, do I have the right to show the lyrics in the photo? The estates of the Steely Dan members are known to be litigious. Aaaw why does it have to be so hard?

Check my previous instalments of data like hip hop starting here.

This article was originally published on Medium. Acces the original here.

What hides in the liner notes of your data
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