Stubborn e-tyke Claire Chanel takes aim at intellectual property law

MIKE KANIN, Weekly Dig, 09 March 2006

We'll go slow.

Kevin Driscoll is 25. He teaches computer science courses for grades 6-12 at a metro-Boston public charter school. He has a degree in visual arts from Assumption College in Worcester and approaches his work in technology with a degree of left-brained openness; his classroom curriculum features topics like "internet identity" and seems to focus more on the social aspects of online interaction than the coded ones. He traces his involvement with computers back some 21 years, to memories of his father setting up an Apple IIc in his bedroom. Though that machine was, by all measures, less than sleek, Driscoll used it for nearly a decade. "I was never into having the fastest computer," he says.

Claire Chanel is 2 years old. According to her mini-bio posted on www.clairechanel.com, she has "been interfacing with creative uses of ephemeral media, dangerously outmoded intellectual property policy, and the industries struggling to adapt" since birth.

A bit precocious for a 2-year-old, no? Even for one whose name is a few letters away from a lawsuit. You can scroll down Chanel's homepage to find a list of the projects that she's credited with. These include "R. Kelly's Closet," an internet tool "dedicated to encouraging and enabling the creation of new works derived from the unusual R&B series," and the "Jay-Z Construction Set," a "toolkit with all of the necessary software and raw material to create a new remix of Jay-Z's Black Album."

In case you can't read through the technospeak, this is the sort of copyright tinkering that the recording industry likes to drag little girls into court over.

The most basic interpretation of the relationship between Driscoll and Chanel would lead to the conclusion that she is his alias. And Driscoll wouldn't totally disagree. "Claire came about by necessity of a project that was my idea, and then Claire is the artist that is credited with that project," he says. "Since then, Claire has executed other artworks on a similar level, most of them based on the internet."

But, according to Driscoll, there's more to it than that. He insists that Chanel isn't just his lightning rod, that she's more of an experiment in identity. That, despite her seeming dependence on Driscoll, she could exist as an entity without too much help from her creator. "Certainly some of Claire's interests, and Claire's direction, and Claire's words, for the most part, are a product of myself," he says. "One way to think about it is that the total set of what makes up Claire was at one time originally consumed by the total set of what Kevin Driscoll is."

"What makes Claire interesting to talk about," he adds, "is that perhaps Claire has extended beyond the boundary of the Kevin Driscoll Venn diagram."

Artist assumes false identity and completes work. Word spreads. Pseudonym gets credit for a thought-provoking piece, a jab at the mainstream. In some cases, that means the works said artist produces under the nom de plume overshadow those done in his or her real name. The basic concept is nothing new.

But when this whole process travels through a router, the story might go more like this: Artist assumes false identity and completes work. Word spreads, spurred on by strategic postings on fan sites. Pseudonym gets credit for a thought-provoking piece, a jab at the mainstream, whatever. Artist downloads a program that simulates real life online. Artist creates an avatar, a graphic representation of his or her pseudonym inside that platform.

This scenario isn.t just theoretical.it exists now. It's called Second Life (www.secondlife.com). This online community shares many similarities with existing role-playing games, but takes the concept further: When you log in to Second Life, you can have a relationship, you can buy property, you can start up your own business; the degree of reality involved is disturbing. Linden Lab, the company running the show, is offering a $4,000 fellowship that aims to "provide a young artist with a chance to be free for a semester or summer to explore the use of the digital world of Second Life as an artistic medium."

How's your brain doing?

And maybe here's the next step: Artist downloads a program that lets their pseudonym act on its own inside the game. Pseudonym now has a real, albeit limited, existence independent of the artist who created it. The funny thing is that this sort of thing can already happen. Indeed, here in weirdo binary world, anyone who picks up the Chanel mantle can (thanks to the beauty of selective online anonymity) become that entity and there could more than one person doing so at a time.

But now we're getting ahead of ourselves (we did promise to go slow, after all). Driscoll says that Chanel's most immediate concern is to "encourage an aspect of culture which is participatory." Hence the extensive work with various forms of remixing. In the process, if she can leave behind an online trail of non-legal precedent, maybe, Driscoll hopes, Chanel's work could help sort out some issues of what he calls "questionable legality" and what the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) might call settled copyright law.

"With these legal questions up in the air," he says of the intellectual property laws which may or may not apply to random acts of remixing, "should the cultural movement shift in such a way that it is generally accepted that these are the types of practices that we value, then it will be much easier for lawmakers to make up their minds and create laws and legislation to match what their constituents want."

Fred von Lohmann, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit digital rights advocacy group, says that most of what's on the books in terms of intellectual property law is pretty solid. But there's still some wiggle room left, especially in the area of fair use, the term that got members of 2 Live Crew out of hot water when they messed with Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." "The law is relatively clear, but the application of fair use to particular facts is always uncertain," von Lohmann says. "It's a case-by-case analysis, and no two cases are ever exactly alike. And noncommercial parody cases are among the rarest of all, because it is so rare that the parodist can afford the legal fight."

For now at least, cease and desist orders continue to go out. Indeed, another local mixmaster, Bob Cronin (aka DJ BC), who just released his second Beatles/Beastie Boys mashup album, recently received one courtesy of EMI, and was forced to take down the album on February 16. Von Lohmann, however, thinks that, were Chanel served with a C&D for her work, she'd have a decent chance at a fair use defense. "It's pretty clear that she's engaged in a whole lot of parody and a whole lot of satire," he says. "And that's a good thing."

But that may not be her only legal option.

MIT professor Judith Donath has spent some serious time thinking about identity and not-so-real life. She's written and presented on the subject; and, according to her website, her current class "examine[s] online identity in-depth." "When you have one person making an alternative persona online, you say, 'Well, OK, they've made this up,'" she says. "It's some kind of masquerade. But there's something interesting that happens when it's multiple people, because then there's a whole collective of people starting to say, 'OK, well, we are going to take part in managing this.'" She suggests that if a group were to spring up around Chanel, it might break new ground in other ways: "The notion of a corporation is that it's this body that acts like a person. One of the things that, legally, a corporation does is that it shields all those people from legal ramifications."

When my conversation with Claire Chanel finally begins, I'm fairly certain that Kevin Driscoll is at the controls. But I can't be positive: Arrangements were made through Chanel's email address, and the back-and-forth happens over Google Talk, a Gmail-integrated Instant Messenger knockoff. The only human element here is my assumption that I know who's behind the curtain.

Chanel is playful. When asked how she would describe herself, she says, "I'm an internet based artist." She talks about the most recent project that she's been credited with: a T-shirt-designing effort that had her selling 'Stop Stop Stop Snitching' XLs on eBay. ("We have to stop the people that want to stop the people that want to stop the people from snitching," announces the print at the top of the website devoted to the shirts.) "[A]lthough [I] am happy with the project on conceptual and aesthetic terms, [I] have to admit that from a business perspective, [I] entered a rather saturated market of "snitching"-related goods," she says.

As for the heavy stuff, she dangles a line similar to Driscoll's. She says there's too much "ambiguity" in existing intellectual property law, that it's a "rather young term intended to encourage people to think of intangible things ... in the same terms [that] they use to think about tangible things." She also maintains Driscoll's stance that she's not here to be sacrificed on the altar of corporate music legislation. "[I] would prefer to prove that the work is both lawful and socially beneficial instead of just being an e-martyr," she says.

And then she offers a warning, suggesting that technology may have come too far for the music industry to keep doing business the way it has for so many years: "[T]he teenage US/internet dual citizens have been living with enabling technologies for the entirety of their lives. [T]hey will react most negatively to any attempts to reduce their ability to interact with and feedback [sic] into the systems of cultural production."

With the big-time music industry foundering, Sony might do well to take heed. By just about everyone's estimation, the world online is, to break out that most promising of American metaphors, a Wild West where speculation has really only just begun. But begun it has: In October, Warner Brothers announced its intention to use a peer-to-peer-based system (you know, like the first incarnation of Napster, Lars Ulrich's royalty-check-decimating arch-nemesis) for media distribution in Europe.

Who will prevail as the ultimate winners of what looks to be a (mostly) bloodless cultural revolution - whether it's catalysts like Driscoll and Chanel, the captains of industry who so often profit from such things, or some combination thereof - still remains to be seen. But one thing's clear: Whatever's going to happen is going to happen fast.

clairechanel.com, 2006