< Copyright Law for Extraterrestrials


Friday, March 14, 2014

BOB GARFIELD:  Last Sunday, Cosmos:  A Spacetime Odyssey debuted on Fox affiliated networks. It is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s sequel to Carl Sagan's enormously popular Cosmos:  A Personal Voyage, which first aired in 1980. In one episode of the original Cosmos, Sagan discusses the Golden Record, a disc attached to the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space crafts that contained information aliens would need to understand humanity. Here’s Sagan reading the liner notes.


CARL SAGAN:  And on this record are a sampling of pictures, sounds, greetings and an hour and a half of exquisite music, the Earth's greatest hits, a gift across the cosmic ocean from one island of civilization to another. [SOUNDS] The record bears in English an additional little handwritten greeting that says, "To the makers of music, all worlds, all times.”


BOB GARFIELD:  Voyager I and its collection of tracks has left our solar system and is now drifting in the interstellar void. But before it left, as the New Yorker's Alex Ross found out NSA made legal history of sorts when it became the first entity to claim the intergalactic right to use a piece of music. Alex, welcome to On the Media.

ALEX ROSS:  Hi, thanks. Good to be here.

BOB GARFIELD:  When we think of sending musical signals to alien beings, here’s what we might tend to think about:  [MUSICAL TONES] You recognize that from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Somehow the extraterrestrials were grooving on that. Is this the real-life execution of that concept?

ALEX ROSS:  To some extent, I suppose. I mean, Sagan went about it a little differently. I, I don't think the idea was to communicate something in, in particular. I mean, in Close Encounters it was the idea that certain music could become the lingua franca through which, you know, civilizations could speak to one another. In this case, it’s simply a kind of a message in a bottle. I think there is some melancholy subtext to this, in that Sagan, from certain things that he said, was imagining a future day when human civilization will have come to an end, whether on earth or having gone to other worlds, who knows, and that this possibly will be all that's left.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, that’s the problem with messages in a bottle. There is only so much that you can stuff into it. And at least with technology back in the late seventies, they had to find just the right selection. Who’s in the mix tape>

ALEX ROSS:  It goes from great classical composers – Bach and Beethoven and Stravinsky – to some pop music. There’s Louis Armstrong, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry. They tried to get the, the Beatles, but there was some kind of rights [LAUGHS] problem with getting “Here Comes the Sun.” And then there’s a lot of world music, a Senegalese percussion, Australian aboriginal music, Azerbaijani bagpipes.

BOB GARFIELD:  But even with the limited selection, [LAUGHS] they ran into copyright issues. You, you mentioned the, the Beatles, but there was another specific piece. Tell me about Laurie Spiegel.

ALEX ROSS:  She's a very important American electronic composer who’s worked in many different media and was one of the first to really explore computer music. And so, at the time, they essentially commissioned her to create this piece based on Johannes Kepler's theory that you could make music from plotting planetary orbits. You could translate them into sound. And so, Spiegel, using the, the latest technology at that, in the late seventies, did translate the fluctuations of, of the orbits of the six planets known to Kepler at that time and created this very eerie piece where you hear these overlapping series of sliding tones that does sound like something that really could be emanating from outer space.


No one has really figured out yet what does it mean for something to be copyrighted outside of the particular national territories through which we define copyright now, and as just kind of a subsection of this, this whole mysterious problem of, of how law is really going to work in space. So no one had, had really yet thought about these issues back in 1977. But nonetheless, NASA, typed up this contract which they sent to Laurie Spiegel. And it says, NASA shall have the right to use, reproduce, perform, sell and distribute the work or any portion thereof in any and all media, without limitation, throughout the world and extraterrestrially. [LAUGHS]


And, obviously, it’s that, that final adverb there which is the, the eyebrow raiser.

BOB GARFIELD:  Although not the one that was a sticking point for Laurie Spiegel.

ALEX ROSS:  I know, well she – she kind of thought, well, it’s fine if they want to have the rights to this piece for all time in the infinity of outer space but, you know, I’d like to keep the rights here on earth. And so, she simply crossed out the phrase “throughout the world and” and signed it and sent it back. And, to the best of her recollection, there was actually no problem with that.

BOB GARFIELD:  You know, probably a very prudent move on her part, legally –


- because it’s gonna be a lot easier for her to collect damages from, let's say, the Walt Disney Company than it ever would have been for Planet K1631.

ALEX ROSS:  Right, yeah. And the discussion goes on because, actually, after I published this piece, I heard from a German though specialist in such matters, Sebastian Golla, who wrote to me saying that because there is no separate idea of copyrights outside of terrestrial territories, by crossing out the, the terrestrial portion of the contract, Spiegel, I think, effectively reasserted her rights throughout the universe, as well.

BOB GARFIELD:  [LAUGHS] Now, in your piece, you make reference to another ticklish situation, when a Canadian astronaut aboard the International Space Station grabbed his guitar and performed a David Bowie standard, Space Oddity.


ALEX ROSS:  They actually jumped through all the hoops and, and got all the permissions in place, before Chris Hadfield did that performance, which turned into a wildly popular YouTube video but, again, we, we don’t really know the technicalities of it. I think it’s debatable whether the copyright does still hold far out in space.

BOB GARFIELD:  What was fascinating about that piece was not the not the extraterrestrial implications but the terrestrial ones because, it turns out, that on the Space Station, the, the various compartments are sort of like embassies, so the Japanese compartment is subject to Japanese property law and the US compartment is subject to US property law, and, and so forth. ALEX ROSS:  And there are serious issues that do arise, in terms of the question of, well, if someone creates some amazing invention on the Space Station or on a future lunar colony, who does own the rights to it? And there is actually a Patents in Space Act, which was enacted in 1990, which was sort of trying to tie down the American part of this equation.

BOB GARFIELD:  Now, you just wrote about this very recently in the New Yorker, but this Golden Record is something that started intriguing you like 30 years ago?

ALEX ROSS:  Yeah well, you know, I was an astronomy kid, and when Cosmo came on the TV, I was 12 years old and I was mesmerized by it. I watched every show. I watched the repeats. I got the Cosmos book, and then I got this book, Murmurs of Earth, which documents the Golden Record and how it was put together.

And, you know, at the same time, I was very deeply immersed in music and playing the piano and then trying to write my own music and studying the history of music. And so, there was this great convergence. And ever since then, every time some kind of   news about the Voyagers appears in the paper, I'm just riveted.

There’s something also thrilling about the idea that this little vessel is, is still out there, transmitting faithfully, even with fading power. And even when the power finally dies, it will still be bearing this record.

BOB GARFIELD:  Alex, thank you so much,

ALEX ROSS:  Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:  Alex Ross writes about music for the New Yorker.


That’s it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman, Chris Neary, Laura Mayer, Meara Sharma and Kimmie Regler. We had more help from Cameron Lindsey, and our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Rich Kwan.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:  And I’m Bob Garfield.


Alex Ross

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield