Thursday, March 22, 2007

Using Copyright Against Torture

In Woody Allen's 1971 film Bananas. Allen, playing the nebbish Fielding Mellish, goes to the Latin American country of San Marcos, where he meets the evil dictator running the country. He also sees a prisoner being tortured by repeated playing of operettas. Reality met Hollywood during the U.S.'s successful 1989 effort in to capture Panamanian dictator (and former ally) Manuel Noriega who was holed up in the Vatican's embassy in Panama. U.S. soldiers blared rock music round the clock, including Van Halen (naturally, their song "Panama"), Jimi Hendrix's electric version of "The Star Spangled Banner" and Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock," until he was coaxed out. (Don't say psy-ops doesn't have a sense of humor! For those of you interested in what has become of Mr. Noriega, is now a born-again Christian; see this February 17, 2007 article in the Wall Street Journal).

There are reports that music has played similar roles in Iraq. Suzanne C. Cusick has this article in 2006 called "Music as Torture/Music as Weapon." I find the article well over the top, but there are some interesting links. In a particularly nasty incident, Barney the Purple Dinosaur's song "I Love You" is alleged to have been used by U.S. soldiers in May 2003 in the interrogation of Iraqi detainees. The song is reported to have been played at a loud volume inside shipping containers. It is unknown whether the detainees understood English or appreciated the nuanced cultural message being sent by invoking such a beloved figure.

An article posted in yesterday's The Register, a UK publication, is entitled "Fighting Torture with Copyright." The author of the article advocates a novel approach to dealing with music as a pys-ops tool. He first advocates use of droit moral, although quoting Larry Lessig as dismissing moral rights as "a French idea." Zoot alors! The author next advocates that artists who object to this use of their music (as Barney may well) should work with their labels to sue and demand royalties. Hopefully the royalties could then be assigned to the detainees, or at we could give them DVDs of children's shows with great music, like the Backyardigans (assuming they have electricity and a TV).

In any event, since the events occurred in a foreign country, it is most likely any suit would have to be filed there. Iraq does have a copyright law, thanks to Paul Bremer, and the unauthorized public performance of music is a fundamental right under all copyright laws. Whether the performance of music by soldiers to a single detainee in a shipping container is a public performance in a difficult question, as compared say to the Noriega example.


Anonymous said...

Re: Noreiga . . . don't forget the use of the Guns & Roses "Welcome to the Jungle" . . . . .

Anonymous said...

If Iraq has a copyright law, why would it not cover unlicensed public performances of music in the context of torture or pleasure? The reason it would be non-actionable would likely have something to do with the formal agreement and terms of the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Those terms probably exempt from civil liability all employees of the United States in the course of performing their duties.

Anonymous said...

The author may be confused, but then he's not the only one.

> The author next advocates that artists who object to this use of their music (as Barney may well) should sue their record labels and demand royalties.

is not what the author advocates or even wrote: "Artists could work with their labels to sue for copyright infringement and ..."

br -d

William Patry said...

Thanks, David, for the correction. I didn't read your post carefully enough.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the edit.

br -d