Illegal Art

Communications professor to speak on freedom of expression

Posted: Thursday, August 04, 2005

As a sociology student in the early-1990s at James Madison University in Virginia, Kembrew Mc-Leod found himself thinking more and more about intellectual property laws.

Few people were studying the topic at the time, and with the Internet still in its infancy, he probably couldn't have foreseen the ethical and commercial battles that were brewing between privatization and public domain.

"I felt like (intellectual property law) was going to be an important issue, but I knew law school would simply train me to think like a lawyer and accept certain conventions," McLeod said.

"I was more interested in studying the law from the perspective of a critic or social theorist and understanding the broader context of what's happening with increasingly snarky property laws."

McLeod will give a lecture about freedom of expression and intellectual property rights at 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 6, at Centennial Hall. Admission is free.


what: discussion on freedom of expression and intellectual property rights.

when: 7 p.m. saturday, aug. 6.

where: centennial hall.

cost: free.

McLeod earned his Ph.D. in communications from the University of Massachusetts in 2000, and is now in his fifth year as an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa.

Nowadays, he's certainly not the only scholar speaking out on the ways in which intellectual property law is restricting freedom of speech, creativity and shared resources. But he certainly is one of the more interesting, as well as entertaining.

McLeod ( has established a cult following with his media pranks, collages, satires and pranks on copyright law and privatization run amok.

In 1998, he trademarked the phrase "freedom of expression" just to show it could be done, and thus, to comment on how absurd trademark law has become.

He is the author of "Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity"; he co-produced the 2001 documentary "Money for Nothing: Behind the Business of Pop Music"; and he has another documentary, "Copyright Criminals" on the way this year.

He also will be at the opening of the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council's "Illegal Art" show during First Friday, 4:30 to 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5. The JAHC has asked artists to create works that question and challenge the ownership of ideas.

McLeod's visit is co-sponsored by Lucid Reverie, organizers of the semi-annual Juneau Underground Motion Picture festival.

"We're definitely living in a time, especially in the past 20 years, when more and more resources, whether they're cultural resources that are protected by intellectual property laws or other kinds of resources, are moving in the direction of being privatized," McLeod said.

"The First Amendment was written long before sound recording technology or video recording technology merged," he said.

"Before, it was pretty simple, especially when the primary mediums were print and spoken word. But the point is, we should always be able to comment on the culture that surrounds us."

McLeod doesn't have any media stunts planned for Juneau, but Saturday's presentation will include some footage of his previous works and collages. More are available at his Web site.

One such collage collects random quotes from Mr. Rogers, and re-assembles them in a bizarre amalgam of sound bytes.

"I guess I was haunted by Mr. Rogers like a lot of people my age," McLeod said. "I always thought he was weird and creepy, even though he meant well. I just decided that because he had occupied part of my mind growing up, I would reinterpret and put my spin on who Mr. Rogers was.

"It's clearly a satirical audio-visual project, and if I had written an essay about it, I'd have had no problem playing around with Mr. Rogers," he said.

"But if I was going to do it in a multi-media form, it means I had to borrow images and sounds that were copyrighted. U.S. copyright law allows for fair use of copyrighted materials for just that purpose - for parody."

File-sharing, of course, has become one of the biggest firestorms in intellectual property debates. The recording and film industries call it pirating. Artists and theorists see it in shades of gray - looking for a happy medium between sharing ideas and allowing compensation for creativity.

"In 2000 with the emergence of Napster, the music industry had an opportunity to embrace the new format," McLeod said. "Instead of unlocking the store, they burned the store down. Then they proceeded to start suing the kids.

"It would have made much more sense to find a way to create a legitimate way to engage in file sharing which wouldn't be that expensive for customers," he said.

"If you had a system that costs $5 per month, sort of like what radio stations already do, then you have a million customers who would be able to enjoy the benefits of file sharing and also artists would get to split some money."

McLeod's certificate for his freedom of expression trademark was part of the first Illegal Art show, organized in San Francisco by Stay Free! magazine publisher Carrie McLaren in 2001. He will show works from that show as part of his presentation.

"I'm going to talk quite a bit about the show, give it a cultural and a legal context," McLeod said. "How the artists got involved in legal battles and how they were the targets of cease-and-desist orders, and what they did about it. And I'm also going to talk a little about my personal experiences with copyright law.

"I'm mainly going to raise a lot of questions and provide some information and leave plenty of time for questions and answers," he said. "The Q&A period tends to be the most interesting part."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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