Monday, August 9, 2010

Something iTunes Does That is Probably Illegal

For years iTunes begs me to update it, and afterward, if I see any change at all, it seems all I can do is flip through my album covers in some new way. More substantive, logical suggestions for improving iTunes have been ignored for years, so today it's still too easy to accidentally delete a playlist, the program cannot automatically find de-linked songs, and (despite there being simple freeware programs that can do it with mp3s) no BPM calculator has been installed.

But that's nothing compared to iTunes' most glaring flaw, which probably breaks the law. iTunes needs to introduce an option to view album covers and liner notes in greater detail.

Last Friday, my friend Goce Alice recommended a 1969 musical starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood. I said, "a musical starring Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood." It's called Paint Your Wagon, and those tough guys, God bless them, did their own singing. How awesome is that?

Goce steered me to this YouTube clip, which features a marvelous rendition of the song "Wan'drin' Star" by Lee Marvin (whose deep and gravely voice recalls Leonard Cohen's).

I rushed to iTunes in order to buy the song, but a few Paint Your Wagon soundtracks exist on iTunes, all of them suspect. I tried to study the fine print in order to pick out the correct one, but there was no reading of fine print. That's because iTunes doesn't allow one to study the album sleeves closely. Album covers are reproduced at a size of about 175 x 175 pixels, which is pretty tiny. Clicking such an image does not take you to a larger version.

I settled on an album that read, "Music from the Paramount Motion Picture." I am shrewd enough to know that this might have just been a very lawyerly way of saying that, while the record featured performances of songs "from the movie," the songs in fact were not the original movie versions, but rather versions by "sound alike" artists. But really, would the people behind this be such pricks?* It did not escape my notice that iTunes credited the singing to the "Rita Williams Singers." But maybe the Rita Williams Singers did the majority of the movie performances, and Lee and Clint stepped in now and then to accompany them. Who knows? It was the best I could come up with.

I bought "Wand'rin' Star" played it, and sure enough I'd been had. I felt stupid and ashamed, like you do when a con man successfully extracts a dollar from you. In fact, the original movie soundtrack version is not available on iTunes at all. Once again, they wonder why we file share.

Had I been more patient, I might have gone to and found this much larger version of the album cover, which made it clear via the absence of Lee Marvin's and Clint Eastwood's names that this was a "Countdown Singers" sort of affair. Oh well.

We all know it's ethically wrong to do shit like this. Nobody wants a sound-alike cover of an original song, and nobody who buys the version of "Wand'rin' Star" that I did does so for any reason other than having been tricked. Nobody. Adding the words "Music from the Paramount Motion Picture" to the album cover deliberately creates this confusion.

There is a special place in hell for the geniuses behind this. But the practice is not illegal. No doubt, the lawyers signed off on everything and Paramount was happy to collect licensing fees.

Where I think iTunes is breaking a law, however, returns us to the issue of the album cover. Back when the lawyers signed off on the original Paint Your Wagon arrangements, nobody at Paramount would have actually wanted somebody to hand money over to the sound-alike band instead of spending that money on Paramount's own "Original Motion Picture Soundtrack" version. It would be logical to assume that the lawyers for Paramount therefore demanded that information be present on the copy-cat's album cover in order to make it clear to the consumer that the record in hand was not the real version.

But in the iTunes world I cannot hold that record in hand and study its fine print. Not only is the cover shrunk down to an unreadable size, but no back cover is provided at all. This cannot have been what the lawyers for Paramount intended.

Even more amazing is the lack of data provided on iTunes m4a music files regarding engineers' names, session musicians, and producer credits. How would one know about David Gilmour's backing vocals on Kate Bush's "Pull Out the Pin"? What of Kate Bush's backing vocals on Peter Gabriel's "No Self Control"? What of Peter Gabriel's lead vocals for Lamb Lies Down on Broadway-era Genesis? Do we get any of that information from iTunes? It does not appear so, judging from what little I find when I click the "Get Info" option on my iTunes m4as. You wouldn't be able to learn from an iTunes m4a that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were in Led Zeppelin; that John Lennon once sang for a band called The Beatles; that--good God--Justin Timberlake was once in 'N-sync!

Is this why so many hip-hop producers are nowadays into the irritating habit of yelling out their names throughout the songs they produce, like paranoid dogs marking their territory? In light of this, it seems they have a point; so forgive me, Jay-Z and Timbaland, for criticizing you for employing this practice. In the future, perhaps all the session musicians will get to do a self-promotional shout-out on every track as well. Songs can just be shouted out lists of names.

So keep your stagecoach clear of them sound-alike varmints, aided and abetted by iTunes' current policies. In the United States the only place you can hear Lee Marvin croaking the original version of "Wand'rin' Star" (outside of renting the poorly-reviewed movie) is by moseying on over to that YouTube clip--at least until Paramount's lawyers have it taken down, which will probably be soon. Then we'll all forget that Lee Marvin's unusual performance ever happened. That's 21st century entertainment law for you.

* Oh God why do I even ask anymore?

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