Collaborative Futures

Problematizing Attribution

“I get credit for a lot of things I didn’t do. I just did a little piece on packet switching and I get blamed for the whole goddamned Internet, you know? Technology reaches a certain ripeness and the pieces are available and the need is there and the economics look good—it’s going to get invented by somebody.”

Paul Baran

A few years ago, the unofficial fanclub website of a very popular Spanish band became notorious for reasons beyond their commitment to the band. As is customary, the site included a page with all the lyrics from all the songs recorded by the band over the years, listed in chronological and alphabetical order. But, at the end of the page, the girls in charge claimed copyright to the whole content under their own names! After a while, a disclaimer note appeared after the copyright terms. The disclaimer explained what they thought it was obvious: as they were the first website dedicated to the band, they have had to copy all the lyrics from the CD booklet to the website by hand. 

Clearly, it was a big task.

From their perspective, they result of transcribing the material rightly belonged to them, the same way the CD belonged to the major company who sold it. In those terms it was clearly no fair for other fans to just go and copy-paste the lyrics on their own websites. On the other hand, they pointed out that “we can’t stop anyone from copying the lyrics from the record, just as we did”. 

Never before have creators and companies been so concerned about intellectual property. Courts are full of musicians accusing other musicians of stealing parts of their compositions. J.K. Rowling has sued and has been sued for stealing the plot and characters of her wildly successful Harry Potter books. Two years ago, Adidas won the exclusive right to use parallel stripes in groups of two, three and four. They stopped at four, but only because K-swiss has been using the five stripe logo since 1966.

All these infamous cases make no sense at all. Is it strange then that four teenagers grow confused about what belongs to who when it comes to their favorite band? Independent from any economical ambition, we have a mostly hilarious confusion of a claim of ownership (copyright) with a demand for acknowledgment, to be credited for the useful task they felt they had performed (attribution). Of course their act was in itself a copyright infringement, because someone ‘owned’ exclusivity in the lyrics after all. But then again, they "stole" from their favorite band in order to promote them even further. And the confusion never stops.

If only all cases were so naive. The inflation of copyright claims has been so radical, and the mismatch with the contemporary usage seems so dramatic, that people are inspired to get in on the game even when the law gives them no grounds. Additionally this example highlights how attribution is often conflated with ownership.