Update: The Ottawa Citizen has retracted its article about the takedown of Hadfield's video. The article incorrectly said that Bowie had not renewed the license for this work. The truth is that Bowie had sold the right to this song, and the owner of that right was the intransigent party. The more important point of the article, though, is that none of this would matter if Hadfield had recorded the song and put it out on CD instead of on Youtube, because we have a relatively sane system of compulsory licenses for sound-only recordings; the law has not made the obvious step of expanding to cover Youtube covers, and that means that wonderful work like Hadfield's is at the mercy of capricious rightsholders in a way that it would not be if it were made in older media.
Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield's cover of Bowie's Space Oddity was a worldwide hit, and now it has been disappeared from the Internet, thanks to a copyright claim from David Bowie. Ironically, if Hadfield had recorded the song and sold it on CD or as an MP3, there would have been no need for him to get a license from Bowie, and no way for Bowie to remove it, because there's a compulsory license for cover songs that sets out how much the performer has to pay the songwriter for each copy sold, but does not give the songwriter the power to veto individual covers (that's why Sid Vicious was able to record "My Way").
As Blayne Haggart's Ottawa Citizen editorial points out, it's hard to make a utilitarian argument for copyright that lets musicians determine who can make Youtube videos from their songs, given that covers are such an accepted part of musical practice. As Haggart writes, "Is the world a better place now that this piece of art has officially been scrubbed from existence?"
Sometimes, the law is an ass. And copyright law, as it’s metastasized over 300 years, definitely possesses ass-like qualities.
The Hadfield Space Oddity takedown is the perfect example of how copyright, which is supposed to promote creativity and increase our access to knowledge and culture, all too often ends up doing the exact opposite. Instead, it becomes a way for copyright owners – usually large multinationals, not actual creators – to control what gets created and seen.
Most people lucky enough not to spend every waking moment thinking about copyright may think that’s just fair – it is their stuff, after all. But what this completely understandable, instinctive response misses is that this will to control often ends up being a veto over the future creation of knowledge and culture.
Op-Ed: Bad copyright rules killed Hadfield's Space Oddity [Blayne Haggart/Ottawa Citizen]