"In today’s copyright law, it’s mostly about non-professional authors"

A conversation with research group lead Simon Schrör.

At the end of 2020, the findings of the last conference that could take place at the Weizenbaum Institute before the COVID-19 lockdown were published as an open access publication: "Tipping Points. Interdisciplinary Approaches to Emerging Issues in Copyright." The volume brings together 13 contributions by authors with different backgrounds – from law, music, literature, to history, and sociology. In an interview, Simon Schrör, head of the research group "Shifts in Norm-Setting", tells us why copyright law is relevant to so many disciplines and how interdisciplinarity can work.


The debate around copyright law is heated. Thousands of people took to the street and it keeps the courts busy. What has contributed to the fact that this particular area has such high potential for conflict?
From the very beginning of the copyright, a tension arose between authors, publishers and consumers. With digitization in recent years, copyright has gone from being an arcane, specialized topic that only a few professionals had to deal with to an area of law that suddenly concerns many people. It affects everyone who publishes music, videos, images or texts on the Internet – not necessarily professionally, but already through their interactions on social media, for example – and thus reaches such a large public that it becomes relevant to copyright law. Consumers also feel the impact of copyright when content that previously existed online is suddenly no longer available, as during the long-running dispute between the Gema [translator's note: a German copyright collective society and performance rights organization] and YouTube, which has since been settled.

How would you summarize the current state of the copyright? What relevance does the topic have for the networked society?
The major copyright reform adopted in the EU in 2019 is currently being implemented in the member states, including Germany. This marks a change in de facto law. Some contributions in our book also reflect on a whole series of relevant court decisions that have changed copyright law. These often concern specific topics where there is great legal uncertainty, for example sampling, or, the use of small parts of works in music. In some cases, this leads to legal disputes that last for decades, as in the case of "Metal on Metal" between the group Kraftwerk and the music producer Moses Pelham. However, it can be said that the focus in copyright law is strongly on non-professional authors, the so-called prosumers, who consume and produce at the same time.

In the call for papers for the conference, you already suggested that those interested in participating should familiarize themselves with a specific metaphor, the "tipping points". How did the conference participants deal with this?
Very differently. Many topics in the academic study of copyright can be summarized in dichotomies and are easily described by tipping points, e.g., the relationship between freedom and restriction or between works worthy of protection and works not worthy of protection. For example, in a quantitative analysis of sheet music data from contemporary pop music, two music researchers have addressed the question of when the protection of a melody is justified at all in terms of copyright. Much more profoundly, the author of a historical analysis on the role of music collecting societies uses this metaphor. He describes techno-legal developments and reactions to them as a historical process without explicitly making tipping points the subject of his analysis. My Weizenbaum colleague, the lawyer Sophie Beaucamp, and I focus on the tipping point, from a sociological and legal point of view, at which low-budget music in hip-hop turns into professional production. We have been exploring the extent to which the protective logics of copyright can also deal with these producers who are at the tipping point. And how the legal freedoms and boundaries that are important in foreign-reference music can be explored here.

In your interdisciplinary collaboration, how did you describe the situation in which this particular group of creators finds itself today?
In the legal debate on copyright, the sampling debate takes up a lot of space. Sophie Beaucamp's legal analysis is the main part of our contribution to this debate. From a sociological point of view, I was able to ground the analysis as a co-author by showing, empirically underpinned from a systems theory perspective, how sampling in hip-hop is a compelling cultural technique that cannot simply be left alone due to legal uncertainty. These producers are confronted with three issues. It's not just the legal situation, it's not just the artistic content, and it's not just the exploitability that determines whether they end up with a song that works and finds an audience, but the interplay of all three logics. We call it a “trilemma”. That's what you have to take into account in legal evaluations, because if the law is going to regulate something in the real world, it has to recognize real world conditions. Thus, in our paper, Sophie Beaucamp arrives at a jurisprudential argument that recognizes the cultural necessity of sampling and proposes that it be recognized as a citation, thus making it legally sound.

How do you communicate in such a diverse group of researchers with different academic traditions, as well as the Weizenbaum Institute in its research groups?
To understand one another is indeed one of the greatest practical challenges of interdisciplinary work: We research the same topic, but with different perspectives, different vocabulary, and different methods. The Weizenbaum Institute now has the perfect basic knowledge to make interdisciplinary work much more fruitful. This includes the acceptance that terms are used quite differently in different disciplines, and the willingness and openness to engage with the findings of the other disciplines in terms of content. We also made use of these principles at the conference. Scholars from a different academic tradition gave the opening statements in a given section. This way, we opened the interdisciplinary discussion. We wanted to use the conference as a means to take advantage of all the perspectives of the other disciplines to identify flaws and ambiguities, to check assumptions, to get inspired and to use this interdisciplinary information to make the participants' working papers – whether they are monodisciplinary or interdisciplinary from the outset – more robust in terms of developing them into publications.

The conference has been organized in cooperation with the Copyright Committee of the Society for Music Business and Music Culture Research. What role do cooperations play in the context of interdisciplinarity?
Cooperation creates networks, which are immensely important for us at the Weizenbaum Institute, e.g., in the promotion of our calls, but also for long-term interdisciplinary exchange. All partners profit from one another: the infrastructure, reach, and equipment of the Weizenbaum Institute are important success factors for hosting such a conference. The open access publication, which greatly increases the visibility of the contributions, was possible with the help and funding by the Weizenbaum Institute. What's next? Many scholars are concerned with the biggest and important development: the EU Copyright Act. The heated debate leading up to the law has been incredibly polarized. Some saw the end of all freedoms, while others saw the end of all exploitable art. How the new law affects artistic freedom, the usability of art, and the power of platforms will be researched by scholars in various disciplines over the next few years. In addition, as society's body of knowledge becomes increasingly digital, issues of digital archiving will continue to have enormous importance in the academic copyright debate.

Thank you very much for the interview.

You can access the book free of charge here. Note: It is only available in German.

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