Sending out an APB:
Yesterday I saw a series of messages from Rusty Priske and Ruthanne Edward asking if anyone knew anything about someone recording one of the old Oneness Poetry Showcase shows at the East African Restaurant. . . because Rusty had just discovered a website that was selling mp3s of his work, and that of a few other poets in town (Ian Keteku, Chris Tse, PrufRock.) I'd link to the site but I don't want to drive them any traffic, because what they're doing is illegal. None of these poets were asked, or told, and none of them are getting any of the money.
It seems that what happened was that someone recorded the show on video, posted it on YouTube, and someone else downloaded the audio from that, and decided to sell it. Entrepreneurial, I suppose. And illegal and infuriating.
Rusty's putting together a cease and desist order (Google your name and mp3-find, and if you come up, contact him - @RustyPriske on Twitter.) And I started thinking about it. Posting YouTube clips of your work is getting to be practically de rigeur for spoken word poets. Someone will argue that if you posted it publicly, online, you gave up your ownership of it. But that all collapses as soon as money is involved. Rusty's response, on his Facebook profile, was to tell people emphatically not to buy the downloads. "I'll give you the poems if you want them," he said. And someone questioned whether his being willing to give them to friends invalidated his claim against the people who'd put them up for sale.
Nope. It totally doesn't. Rusty wrote and performed his poems. They are his, to do with as he will. If he wants to give them away, that's fine. What isn't fine is a third party taking his work and making money off it without asking him, getting permission, or sharing the profits - or exposure - with him in some way. It's not that they're making money that Rusty would have somehow otherwise got for his work: Rusty doesn't sell his poetry that I'm aware of. It's not that this site is stealing money from Rusty, exactly. But the people that download the poems may think that Rusty was the one that uploaded them, and that the money is going to him, for one thing. They may not know that they're not supporting the artist with their purchase. But that's not even the point.
The point is that even in the broke-ass and not-always-money-based artistic economy, you don't get to profit off someone else's work without compensating them in some way. Maybe this isn't a question of economics (come on, the poems are probably selling for a buck apiece) but it's a question of where the ethical lines have to be drawn. It's not about the money. It's about people knowing, or being taught, about what it means to respect an artist and the work they've put into their art. The money is just a convenient way of marking that respect, but it could just as easily be marked with credit, asking permission, directing someone to someone else's website. There is an intangible economics that has to be respected. What this website has done undermines all that.