Kembrew McLeod, Communication Studies
Kembrew McLeod, associate professor of communication studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.
For a guy who sold his soul (repeatedly), Kembrew McLeod is doing OK.
McLeod, associate professor of communication studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, teaches and studies intellectual property law, popular culture, and media studies. He has written numerous articles for scholarly journals, penned books about freedom of expression (a phrase he successfully trademarked in 1998) and intellectual property law, and produced documentary films.
fyi sat down with McLeod to talk about his teaching and research, and the media pranks that involved selling his soul, taking on corporate giant AT&T, and promoting a three-eyed pig with antlers.
What prompted you to enter the realm of intellectual property?
It was music—more specifically, lawsuits against musicians in the late 1980s/early 1990s—that brought my attention to the issue of copyright.
Hip-hop artists were sued for sampling bits and pieces of other people’s work and integrating it into their work, and then Negativland, a band whose career I’d been following, did a sound collage that included Casey Kasem struggling to introduce a U2 record, and a sample of U2’s music. Ultimately, Island Records sued them for copyright infringement.
I hadn’t thought of Negativland’s music in terms of copyright; I had only thought about it in terms of creativity or social commentary—taking bits and pieces of media culture that bombard us and turning it around and commenting on it. As sound artists, their only way to comment was to use the actual sound, the same way I, as a writer, quote from other people in the medium of print. In print, that practice is acceptable, but once you use sound, it is supposed to enter the realm of unacceptable?
What message or issue do you try to highlight through your teaching?
My main concern with the issues of copyright and culture is free speech. I want to make sure that information can flow freely. I want people to be aware of fair use, which allows people to use a copyrighted work for purposes of education, commentary, parody, and the like. This is a different activity than bootlegging someone else’s DVD and selling it—fair use is about free speech.
We can’t allow copyright law to shut down free exchange of ideas just because words or images or sounds are copyrighted. If you don’t know you have rights, it’s real easy to lose them, and fair use is a right that I want more people to know about.
To some degree, this was an obscure topic when I started studying it in the early 1990s, but the Napster lawsuits and the buzz around YouTube.com have made people conscious of these issues.
You’re producing two documentaries—one of which is a companion piece to your book, Freedom of Expression: Overzealous Copyright Bozos and Other Enemies of Creativity. Can you share some details about the films?
Copyright Criminals: This is a Sampling Sport examines the history of popular music, hip-hop, and sampling. Hip-hop brought all the issues at the heart of the Napster controversy to the forefront a decade earlier. Freedom of Expression: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property tackles important fair-use cases such as the foul-mouthed rap group 2 Live Crew’s parody of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.”
You’ve become known as a media prankster. You repeatedly “sold your soul” for 12 years, including a high-profile sale on eBay. You also trademarked the phrase “freedom of expression.” What constitutes a media prank?
My definition of a media prank: cooking up a story for the purpose of making a critique. The story must be one that reporters would go for—like registering the trademark for “freedom of expression”—and one that would spread to a wide audience in order to deliver the particular critique that you’re trying to make.
When I sold my soul on eBay, it was during the tech boom, and we were living in materialistic times. It disgusted me. So I adopted the persona of this crass professor, saying quotable things: “Well, I may not have a soul, but now I drive a nice car!” Some people got the critique I was making, some didn’t.
In 1998, I trademarked “freedom of expression” as a joke, but the media prank found a real target—AT&T—in 2003 after one of my students pointed out that AT&T was using the phrase in newspaper ads. So I took legal action, though I didn’t expect to get a response. I wanted to comment on power relationships.
Many companies, AT&T included, are trigger-happy with the cease-and-desist letter. It’s really easy for AT&T to send me such a letter—like many things in this country, it boils down to this: who has more money to waste in court. Of course, they didn’t bother responding to my demands, but if I receive a letter from them, I would need to worry about it.
Are you still the guardian of the “freedom of expression” trademark?
I lost the trademark, because I was incompetent and didn’t properly reregister. But the end result is even better—if you go online to check the status of the trademark, it says “FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IS DEAD.” “Dead” is a legal term designating that a trademark has essentially passed into the public domain. I had an anxiety about being known as the guy who owns the trademark on freedom of expression, a one-joke wonder, so this was a nice way to wrap it up.
Do you have a favorite prank on your résumé?
My first big one, as an undergrad at James Madison University. I created a fictitious movement to change the JMU mascot to a three-eyed pig with antlers. I was shocked at how easy it was to fool people into thinking it was a real movement—some people were genuinely irritated. Rather than threaten a symbol that is very powerful—like the U.S. flag—I went after something absurd, the school mascot. I realize now, at a Big Ten school, school spirit isn’t to be messed with, and can genuinely upset people.
But the real surprise: with some 22-cent stamps and a dot-matrix printer, I was able to shape news stories. And reporters kept following up, so I started telling outrageous lies, waiting for reporters to call me out. Instead it was reported as fact that the proposed mascot was a compromise of two factions—one that wanted a three-eyed clown, while the other wanted an antlered pig. When asked what the antlered pig represented, I would say, “As you surely know, the antlered pig is a pagan symbol of spirituality and sexuality.” That appeared without quotes, as fact.
When this happens with something absurd, that’s one thing. But when the media is used to sell a war, for instance…that has deeper material consequences. The weapons of mass destruction campaign is an example of how media pranks work—it wasn’t a prank, not at all, but it followed the same technique used to shape the news.
The three-eyed pig with antlers is my favorite prank because it changed my life—it sparked my interest in studying media. I never expected to be studying it, to be engaged in it, 15 years later.
What do you do to unwind?
I always have a backlog of music to check out. I’ve been enjoying Lucinda Williams’ latest disc. I’ve got L7 in the car stereo right now; before that, it was Public Enemy. I’m reading The Trouble with Tom, a good book by Paul Collins. [Editor’s note: Collins, a UI adjunct assistant professor of English, documents the bizarre travels of founding father Thomas Paine’s remains.] Collins injects a good deal of wit into his work.
Do you have time to watch TV?
Well, I’m a media studies professor, so I have to keep up on this stuff. I enjoy the serials: 24, Lost, and so on. I got sucked into American Idol for the first time last season—I watch it for the sociological aspect. You know, the train wreck.
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