“Thank God It’s Friday” Ethics Warm-Up, 8/2/2019: Non-Reciprocal Loyalty, Woke Virtue-Signaling, Reasonable Vigilantes, And Pseudo-Plagiarism

And I don’t even like Friday, since small businesses like mine acknowledge no weekends, and ethics never sleeps…

1. Loyalty Ethics. Joe Biden got knocked around in the debate this week for supporting Barack Obama’s policies. Joe remained steadfast, saying, “I was a little surprised at how much incoming there was about Barack, about the President. I’m proud of having served him. I’m proud of the job he did. I don’t think there’s anything he has to apologize for. He changed the dialogue, he changed the whole question, he changed what was going on. And the idea that somehow it’s comparable to what [ President Trump] is doing is absolutely bizarre.”

Obama, however, has been silent. Now talk-show host Jesse Kelly, among others, is questioning Obama’s loyalty, tweeting, “The silence from Barack Obama as his Vice President of eight years gets torn limb from limb on his behalf is fascinating. Not even a polite word of support. Either those two are really on the outs or Obama truly is a political machine with no sense of loyalty.”

Fair? I don’t think so. It is not appropriate for Obama to start playing favorites as this stage pf the nomination process. He may realize that being seen as having to come to Joe rescue might hurt more than help: can Biden stand up for himself, or can’t he? That doesn’t mean that Obama is not a political machine with no sense of loyalty; I suspect that he is, as most of our Presidents have been. I also suspect that Obama thought Biden was a dolt, which, as we know, he is.

2.  NBA sexual exploitation/ virtue-signaling ethics. I don’t know what to make of this story. Maybe you can explain it. The Milwaukee Bucks are eliminating their traditional, all-female T&A sideline “dance team” and replacing them with a gender-inclusive dance team named the 414 Crew. (Wait: my Facebook friends are arguing that an all-female editorial board is still diverse! Why was this necessary?) From the Bucks brass: “We’re kind of constantly looking to evolve and broaden our reach and be as inclusive as we possibly can.” Oh. That’s funny, I assumed that scantily clad women moving provocatively was a crude way to please the NBA’s and NFL ‘s overwhelmingly male market. If teams finally recognize that these acts were demeaning to women, why not just eliminate them? Why does a pro-basketball team need “dancing, tumbling, break-dancing, tricking and other unique talents” on display during the game? Why not magic acts? Fire-eating? 

3. Vigilante Ethics. The six-part Sundance Channel documentary  “No One Saw a Thing,” reopens the controversy over the 1981 vigilante murder of  Ken Rex McElroy in Skidmore, Missouri, current population 263. McElroy terrorized the town, setting fires, killing animals, and shooting people, but always avoiding punishment. After he was finally convicted of a killing and a judge inexplicably let him out on bail pending his appeal, the town held a meeting (including the local sheriff) and decided that McElroy “needed killing.”  A group of citizens—the exact number is unknown, perhaps as many as 30—surrounded his car (McElroy’s wife was a passenger) and shot it and McElroy full of holes. No one was prosecuted. The guns and shells were all disposed of; no one would say they witnessed the event.

In the first episode of the series, there is general agreement that McElroy frightened everyone in the town and his presence had made life their unbearable. The residents felt their options were to move, submit to his abuse, or kill him.

They killed him. They regarded it then and now as self-defense. The thrust of the series is that this event essentially lay a curse on the town, poisoning its culture and causing the continuing string of violent crimes since the murder. I tend to view such situation through the Ethics Incompleteness Principle. Murder and vigilantism are absolutely wrong, except in certain rare circumstances that don’t fit neatly into any principle or rule. Then you have to move toward utilitarianism, and a case by case analysis.

4. More musical plagiarism weirdness: A jury ruled that pop star Katy Perry  and her label Capitol Records owes Christian rapper Flame $2.78 million, and that $550,000 should come from the Perry. Her 2013 smash hit “Dark Horse” was found to have copied an older song by Flame (aka Marcus Gray), who alleged that it coppied not the melody, not the lyrics, but the beat from his 2009 song “Joyful Noise.” The federal jury decided on this week  that the writers of “Dark Horse”  (which sold more than 13 million copies)  graced the stage of the Super Bowl halftime show, and was nominated for a Grammy did infringe on Flame’s track.

Throughout the 20th century, copyright lawyers and music creators agreed that  copyright claims were valid for lyrics and melody, but not for abstract details like rhythm, beat, and tone.  The “Blurred Lines” case forever changed the status quo when its court ordered the hit song’s writers to cough up $5 million to Marvin Gaye’s heirs for creating too similar of a “vibe” to Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.”

“They’re trying to own basic building blocks of music, the alphabet of music that should be available to everyone,” Perry’s lawyer Christine Lepera argued at the conclusion of the trial. That sounds about right. Rolling stone quotes Kenneth Freundlich, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer, as noting  that since “Blurred Lines,” there has been a noticeable increase “in calls to lawyers from clients along the lines of, ‘This sounds a little like this [other song]. What do you think?’” More from Rolling Stone:

Yet another major factor in the increase of copyright lawsuits is the fact that many plaintiffs nowadays are not artists themselves: they’re the heirs and family members of artists who’ve died or retired, with much to gain and nothing to lose. (Whereas an artist might have felt cagey about suing another artist because of reputation or potential retribution down the line, heirs who don’t work in the music business don’t share any of those constraints.) “Their interests have pushed courts to re-conceptualize the scope of copyright subject matter,” Buccafusco says.

He adds: “The world of musical composition is not that broad, and it’s certainly not that broad when it comes to things like bass lines. Most musicians are working in a finite innovation space. There are not a lot of sounds generally pleasing to people’s ears and not that many ways to say, ‘Love is a wonderful thing.’ Should they be financially on the hook for that?”

27 thoughts on ““Thank God It’s Friday” Ethics Warm-Up, 8/2/2019: Non-Reciprocal Loyalty, Woke Virtue-Signaling, Reasonable Vigilantes, And Pseudo-Plagiarism

  1. Joe Biden was Obama’s token. In a sense Biden was to Obama as Rochester was to Jack Benny. I was going to say Steppinfetchit but decided against it.

    Biden must surely carry a very heavy burden of white guilt to always be in the service to minorities. Had he not played this role and reinforced the idea that minority ideas must be given great deference no matter how obvious the downside would be, we might have been able to resolve some uncomfortable racial issues. Instead, he is one of many enablers, who needs to be a champion for justice, that destroy any opportunity for intergroup dialogue because they tattoo a scarlett R for racist on any person critiquing the competence or achievements of a person of color.

    He is a dolt, a fool, and not even close to being a leader. He is the DuBurns to William Donald Shaeffer. In fairness to Du Burns, former Mayor of Baltimore, Burns did not ever raise the race card he was just very loyal but lacked the capacity to run Baltimore like Schaeffer could.

  2. #4 – You would think that if they started getting rulings on “beat” “rhythm” and “tone” that you’d be able to go back earlier than them and find something from the 70s, 50s, even 20s. What happens when you rip off Elvis when he ripped off others before him? Who has the claim and is the earliest known recording out of copyright now and in the public domain?

    The problems of having a perpetual copyright that lasts 70+ years is coming home to roost for these studios.

  3. I’m frankly a little surprised that Obama isn’t coming out to defend, not Biden, but his own legacy (such as it is). The attacks on Biden are also attacks on him, as it’s Obama’s policies that are drawing criticism from the far left. I’m frankly surprised his ego can take this much of a beating in silence.

    I also can’t help but enjoy watching it all unfold… If you like your legacy, you can keep your legacy, eh, Mr. President?

    Politically speaking, the longer Obama refrains from commenting, the more space it opens up for the radicals to move further leftward. He could shut down some of the shift to the left with a few well-placed comments, and probably increase the chances of one of these morons being able to beat Trump. Certainly, the spectacle of this crop of misfits trying to out-radical each other isn’t improving anyone’s chances in the general election, other than Trump’s.

    • Jeff wrote:

      “Politically speaking, the longer Obama refrains from commenting, the more space it opens up for the radicals to move further leftward. He could shut down some of the shift to the left with a few well-placed comments[.]”

      The assumption is that Obama wants to stop the leftward lurch of his party. He doesn’t. He openly embraces Sanders and Warren, thinks universal health care is a fundamental human right, and would love to see the rich get soaked with crushing taxes.


      • The other option is nothing can take away his being the first black president. Although he is better characterized as one of many mixed ethnic presidents.

        Additionally, he now is set for life. Let the others fight about getting their share. Eff em.

    • Jeff, a few words from Obama could have mitigated quite a bit of the ugliness surrounding the post-election aftermath (the ‘not my President’ crowd) and the boycott of the Inauguration, changed the tone and perhaps calmed the situation down right at the outset, and chose not to.
      He’s someone who they’d listen to, and he chose not to speak, and doesn’t seem to have opinions on much in general. So much for the Bromance.

  4. 3. I saw the “City Confidential” (a former A&E show that makes the rounds on True Crime channels these days) episode of the McElroy incident a few years ago. It fascinated me how citizens of a small town handled the bad guy just like it might have been done in the Old West.

  5. So does the Ken Rex McElroy case fall under the ethics incompleteness principle? If the claims of this website are true, https://morbidology.com/the-town-that-got-away-with-murder/, then I’m leaning towards yes.

    Sometimes the law doesn’t work and the people need to take it into their own hands. ‘Member that time 30-60 vets in Georgia waged a no-shit battle against 200+ corrupt local police? Complete with automatic fire and improvised dynamite grenades? The cops were rigging elections and collecting illegal fines and the local and federal government didn’t do a damn thing about it (at least not fast enough to matter). What happened to our vets? Nothing really. No charges. Many of them went on to win elections to replace the corrupt and incompetent officials that caused the problem. The Battle of Athens really should be taught in school.

  6. Just random thoughts regarding #4…

    Intentionally appropriating someone else’s song and adapting it, without permission from the original artist, I think would be considered unethical. In hip hop parlance this is “jacking,” “beat jacking” or “biting” and is considered okay by no one, even though it happens all the time. Hip hop history is filled with drama and fighting over stolen beats and songs. But where, if anywhere, the law needs to come in on this is a mystery. It’s near impossible to prove what’s intentional and what isn’t.

    The line between “beat jacking” and just “sampling” (the foundation of hip hop and a few other genres) can be blurry but there is a difference. Here’s a quick and dirty guide:

    -If you pull an MC Hammer or Vanilla Ice and basically perform karaoke over someone else’s music, that is obvious beat-jacking and you face cultural rejection and/or retribution. It’s also FIRMLY illegal to do this now, and it was toeing the line when Hammer and Ice did it (Vanilla Ice was forced to pay up despite having slightly changed the famous bass line of “under pressure” for his lousy song.) The more well-known the original, stolen song is, the less likely your peers will tolerate this, legal or not.

    -If you do the above with permission (and usually payment,) it’s simply a “rendition” “cover” or “flipped” song. As in, “Eminem flipped the chorus of ‘Dream On’ by Aerosmith.” This might be looked at sideways as a lack of creativity, but is mostly considered fine.

    -If you use a drum break, bass line, or other snippet of a song, and use it as part of an original composition, this is “sampling.” This is the foundation of hip hop music, but is now firmly established as ILLEGAL, and how likely you are to get away with it depends on how many units you sell, because record labels will fiercely protect their intellectual property. Big name artists can afford to pay artists for sampling their music, but generally, the large labels these days prefer to just save themselves the hassle and risk, and use studio musicians.

    -Then there’s “sampling” from a hip hop song, or from other types of sample-based music like Portishead. This is universally considered what you would call a “bitch move;” just the worst. If it’s an actual sample of an audio recording, it’s illegal, but if it’s just imitating a beat’s sound, the legality depends on all sorts of other variables…which is where Katy Perry comes in.

    There is almost zero chance that Katy Perry was unfamiliar with “Joyful Noise,” so it’s most likely that she (really, her producers) liked the beat and decided they could incorporate it, tweaking it just enough to avoid having to get any permission or give any credit. That’s not nice, but I don’t think it should be illegal, for all the reasons Jack gave. Chief among them, the fact that there’s no way to prove intentionality.

    However, there was always a 50/50 chance that Flame was going to win this lawsuit. Beats are the foundation of most modern pop songs, and even a recognizable bass line can be protected by law. How that logic applies to something like 12-bar blues, where every song is essentially the same tune, or drum n bass, where 1000s of songs are based on one sample created by a drummer who never received any royalties and died homeless, is a mystery to me. The whole thing is a mess.

    One other thing: Since the dawn of rock and roll, legendary artists have made their names by just plain cannibalizing gospel music, without compensation or acknowledgement. Half of Ray Charles’ breakout hits were just tunes stolen from contemporary gospel artists, with one or two words changed, for which Charles claimed full credit. The Rolling Stones’ first big self-written hit was an adaptation of a gospel song, which of course the band didn’t credit in any way. There’s also a long history of white artists appropriating black artists’ music, often without proper credit or compensation. Those were real injustices, although perhaps we’ve swung out too far in the other direction now.

  7. 1. Anytime an ex-president keeps his mouth shut about politics, it is an unalloyed good, in my view.

    I know it’s just a primary and he has a perfect right to weigh in, but I appreciate his silence, just as I appreciated it when Bush 43 failed to endorse a candidate in the Republican primary of 2016. Let ’em fight their own battles.

    2. Why can’t they just go to mixed male-female cheer teams like colleges do? And lose the excess sex appeal, there’s plenty of that in other entertainment.

    Seems simple to me.

    3. Vigilante ethics

    Murder and vigilantism are absolutely wrong, except in certain rare circumstances that don’t fit neatly into any principle or rule. Then you have to move toward utilitarianism, and a case by case analysis.

    Shorter analysis: Sometimes people just need killin’ so bad it’s okay.

    4. This should be appealed and overturned. It’s a bridge too far.

  8. I wonder when the day will come when the very core and origin of popular American music will devolve into claims over ownership and ‘appropriation’. That is if it hasn’t already and I am not aware of it.

    The Cuban ‘son’ has its origins in specific African rhythms — certain drum cadences that are distinct and different from other ones — that are used to invoke specific Orishas (gods, spirit-powers) in AfroCuban rituals. Essentially voodoo rituals.

    Drums of Passion rhythms:

    New Orleans is to Havana the American counterpart. A cultural matrix where new rhythm modalities were worked out. It all had a great deal to do with identity, power, assertion.

    The underpinning of American jazz is in a similar cultural-spiritual matrix as that of Cuba and its ‘son’, and Rock’n’Roll evolved out of these drum-traditions and rhythms in which a great deal more is contained and expressed. Rock’n’Roll expresses an undermining, rebellious, resisting and counter-cultural will, and these rhythms become tools, as everyone can see, in overturning old orders. Essentially, tribal primitivism vs Occidental civilization structure.

    This is not a controversial assessment and it is rather typical:

    Since the mid-nineteenth century, more than any other music worldwide, that of African Americans has worked its way into white imaginations. It has been a development that racial reactionaries have regarded with apprehension, even horror. In that cross-racial attraction they could see only evil, a barbaric jungle beat that had the power to remake its listeners—not just to move their bodies, but to reshape their minds.

    Although reductionism must be noted, and avoided, there is in my view a sort of co-incidence to be noted in the established rhythmic modalities that affected American culture, and swept the generations up into them, and the strange developing and devolving present where people seem carried by physical mood and far less by intellectual idea.

    Oddly, in the NYTs yesterday there was a video on the Sunrise Movement. In one part of it there was shown some young activists-of-color occupying the hallways of lawmakers. What I noticed was the rhythm and the dance-movements of the activists as they sang their rebellion-songs. It was something that moved in their bodies. It reminded me of the (really strange) dance-movements of South African activists in their cultural work of undermining and overturning — occupying — the South African state.

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