New York Times
March 11, 2007
Gilberto Gil Hears the Future, Some Rights Reserved
By LARRY ROHTER
ON Wednesday the Brazilian minister of culture, Gilberto Gil, is scheduled to speak about intellectual property rights, digital media and related topics at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Tex. Two nights later the singer, songwriter and pop star Gilberto Gil begins a three-week North American concert tour.
Rarely do the worlds of politics and the arts converge as unconventionally as in the person of Mr. Gil, whose itinerary includes a solo performance at Carnegie Hall on March 20. More than 40 years after he first picked up a guitar and sang in public, Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira is an anomaly: He doesn’t just make music, he also makes policy.
And as the music, film and publishing industries struggle to adapt to the challenge of content proliferating on the Internet, Mr. Gil has emerged as a central player in the global search for more flexible forms of distributing artistic works. In the process his twin roles have sometimes generated competing priorities that he has sought to harmonize.
As a creator of music, he is interested in protecting copyrights. But as a government official in a developing country celebrated for the creative pulse of its people, Mr. Gil also wants Brazilians to have unfettered access to new technologies to make and disseminate art, without having to surrender their rights to the large companies that dominate the culture industry.
“I think we are moving rapidly toward the obsolescence and eventual disappearance of a single traditional model and its replacement by others that are hybrids,” Mr. Gil said in a February interview at his home here in northeast Brazil, one day before the start of Carnival. “My personal view is that digital culture brings with it a new idea of intellectual property, and that this new culture of sharing can and should inform government policies.”
Raised in the poor, arid interior of the Brazilian northeast, Mr. Gil, 64, has been straddling disparate worlds most of his life. No black Brazilian had ever served as a cabinet minister before he was appointed four years ago, and as a young man fresh out of college he worked for a multinational company at a time when few black Brazilians had access to such jobs. Later, during a military dictatorship, he was jailed and then forced into exile in Britain.
After returning to Brazil in the 1970s he made records that urged black Brazilians to reconnect with their African roots, and was an early champion here of Bob Marley and reggae. But Mr. Gil has also read widely in Asian philosophy and religions and follows a macrobiotic diet, leading the songwriter, producer and critic Nelson Motta to describe his style as “Afro-Zen.”
In person Mr. Gil is warm, calm and engaging, a slim, dreadlocked figure with an elfin, humorous quality that tends to disarm critics. As both individual and artist he has always tended to be open-minded and eclectic in his tastes; the poet Torquato Neto once said of him, “There are many ways of singing and making Brazilian music, and Gilberto Gil prefers all of them.”
A fascination with technology has been another constant in Mr. Gil’s long career. He wrote his first song about computers, called “Electronic Brain,” back in the 1960s, and has regularly returned to the theme in compositions like “Satellite Dish” and “On the Internet,” which was written in the early 1990s and contains this verse:
I want to get on the Web
Promote a debate
Bring together on the Internet
A group of fans from Connecticut
I want to go on the Web to contact
Homes in Nepal and bars in Gabon
“I don’t think there is anyone quite like Gil anywhere in the world,” said John Perry Barlow, the former Grateful Dead lyricist who is a friend and the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the groups in the forefront of the drive to reform the current intellectual property rights system. “He’s a spearhead. He’s been thinking about I.P. issues forever and clearly gets the importance of all of this. But he’s also in a unique position to implement his ideas.”
One of Mr. Gil’s first actions after becoming culture minister in 2003 was to form an alliance between Brazil and the nascent Creative Commons movement. Founded in 2001, Creative Commons is meant to offer an alternative to the traditional copyright system of “all rights reserved,” which the movement’s adherents — from scientists and artists to lawyers and consumers — believe has impeded creativity and the sharing of knowledge in the Internet age.
In its place Creative Commons has devised a more flexible structure that allows artists to decide what part of their copyright they wish to retain and what part they are willing to share with the public. With input from Mr. Gil and many others, the organization has created licenses that permit creators and consumers to copy, remix or sample a digital work of art, so long as the originator is properly credited.
More than 145 million works have been registered with Creative Commons licenses, including videos, photographs, written texts, blogs and of course music. Because Brazil is “a country that has music in its genetic code,” to use Mr. Barlow’s phrase, and because Brazilian music has become a global force, the idea of loosening the automatic control of artistic works by a handful of conglomerates headquartered a hemisphere away has resonated strongly here.
“Look at remixing on music sites, which has become a core of creativity on the Internet and produced a huge archive of legally usable music,” said Lawrence Lessig, the author of “Free Culture” and founder of Creative Commons. “That has allowed a whole bunch of people to display themselves as artists and be picked up by record labels and Web sites, and all of that began because Gil got us to think about what kind of freedom was necessary for music.”
As culture minister Mr. Gil has also sponsored an initiative called the Cultural Points program. Small government grants are issued to scores of community centers in poor neighborhoods of some of Brazil’s largest cities to install recording and video studios and teach residents how to use them.
The result has been an outpouring of video and music, much of it racially conscious and politically tinged rap or electronica. Since Brazilian commercial radio, which is said to be riddled with payola, will not play the new music, the creators instead broadcast their songs on community radio stations and distribute their CDs independently, at markets and fairs, rather than through existing record labels.
With that project, “you’re now creating freely licensed content and demonstrating the creativity latent in the society,” Mr. Lessig said.
Brazil’s official stance on digital content and intellectual property rights is in large part derived from Mr. Gil’s own experience. In the late ’60s he and his close friend Caetano Veloso, along with a handful of others here and in São Paulo, started the movement known as Tropicalismo, which blended avant-garde poetry, pop influences from abroad and home-grown musical styles then scorned as corny and déclassé.
In a way, the Tropicalistas engaged in sampling before digital sampling existed, using cut-and-paste, mix-and-match collage techniques that are common now but were considered bizarre at the time. In recent years their music and approach has been embraced by pop performers as diverse as David Byrne, Nirvana, Beck, Nelly Furtado and Devendra Banhart.
When “world music” first appeared in the United States and Europe and Mr. Byrne, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and others began incorporating Brazilian rhythms into their work, Mr. Gil was initially skeptical of the phenomenon, complaining of “cultural safaris” by adventurers in Land Rovers “looking for all the rare specimens.” But thanks in large part to technological advances, he said, that practice has “changed completely,” and pop stars are now “more respectful” of other cultures.
“Today the hegemony of the North has, in a certain form, been broken,” he said. “Local tendencies are allowed to manifest themselves and adopt their own languages and forms of packaging. It’s no longer that vision of transforming some regional raw material into a single, standardized product. Today you have all kinds of local scenes that utilize universal elements,” like Brazilian, South African and Arab rap.
As a Tropicalista, Mr. Gil was also involved in an episode that is Brazil’s equivalent of Bob Dylan being booed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. When the Tropicalistas played electric guitars and rock rhythms at a São Paulo song festival in 1967, they were jeered and accused of being agents of American imperialism who were trying to impose noxious foreign influences on Brazilian music.
Mr. Gil’s complaints about the inequities of copyrights are derived in part from his own experience. Like many other musicians he signed contracts early in his career that essentially gave away publishing rights to the songs he wrote. But he waged a seven-year court battle to regain his rights, which ended recently with a favorable ruling that opens the door for other Brazilian artists to regain their rights as well.
“The old contracts were completely concessionary, in which all rights over the work were ceded to the contract holder, in absolute form,” he said. “I fought to bring my own work back under my control, arguing that there exists a unilateral right to break the contract. And we won. It was the first time this happened in Brazil, based on an artist’s rescinding a contract, and without a negotiated accord.”
Now that Mr. Gil has regained ownership of his own catalog of more than 400 songs, he is putting the concept of “copyleft,” as the alternative system is sometimes called, into practice. He retains all rights on some songs, some rights on others and declaring “no rights reserved” on others, which are now free for others for use in remixes or videos.
With such an approach an artist “no longer needs to transfer the administration of his rights to an entity called the record company, the movie studio or the song publisher,” Mr. Gil said. “He can do it himself.”
DESPITE all his brushes with politics over the years, it was only at the end of the ’80s, when he was elected to the City Council here in Brazil’s third-largest city, that Mr. Gil ventured into conventional party politics. His constituency was an unusual mixture of poor and working-class blacks and middle-class, mostly white, environmentalists.
But he withdrew after one term, turning aside requests he run for Brazil’s Congress by saying he was tired of partisan bickering and wanted to resume his performing career. Many Brazilians were therefore surprised when he jumped back into politics after the country’s first left-wing government was elected in 2002 and he was offered the cabinet post of culture minister, and then again late last year when he agreed to stay on for a second term.
“I still don’t like politics,” he said. “I’d rather see my position in the government as that of an administrator or manager. But politics is a necessary ingredient. You have politics in the government, with ministers, on the issue of how the budget is divided, the cake sliced up, the distribution of resources. You have to choose priorities, to tend to some and not to others.”
Mr. Gil’s tenure has not been without controversy. He is a member of the Green Party, not the ruling Workers’ Party, so when he was first appointed, some party loyalists were miffed that the job had not gone to one of their own, and responded with manifestos criticizing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s choice of a pop star thought to be ideologically suspect.
“You have to remember that Tropicalismo was fought by the traditional Stalinist left, and that even today some of those same people are in the Workers Party and the unions,” said Mr. Motta, who is also the author of “Tropical Nights,” a history of Brazilian popular music since the 1960s. “They want to bring culture under state control and know nothing about the digital world and the Internet, so of course they oppose a true revolutionary like Gil, who has always pushed for new things.”
Since Mr. Gil became minister, Brazilian government spending on culture has grown by more than 50 percent, testimony both to his prestige and negotiating skills. As minister he has devoted time to selling Brazilian music abroad, but has also labored to draw attention to Brazilian film, painting, sculpture and literature in foreign markets.
“One thing to remember about Gil,” said Hermano Vianna, an anthropologist, writer and a leading figure in Brazil’s digital culture movement, is that “he sees culture not just as art, but also as an industry. To Gil culture is not just an accessory but an important part of the economy and even a motor of economic development.”
Over the last four years, though, Mr. Gil has cut way back on his own performances, the part of being a musician he says he enjoys most, and nearly stopped recording. His most recent disc, “Gil Luminoso,” is a collection of 15 of his songs, including “Electronic Brain,” that he rerecorded in 1999 with just voice and guitar, to accompany a book about him.
Why give up something as gratifying as playing music for the wear and tear of public administration? “Life is not just pleasure,” he said. “The first phrase of the Vedic scriptures is that ‘All is suffering.’ Difficulty is stimulating, challenging, it’s an element of the pulse of life.”
Besides, he is at a point in life “where I no longer want to have a commitment to my career, in the classical sense of a profession,” he said. “I no longer see music as a field to be exploited. I see it now as an alternative area of action, part of a broad repertory of possibilities that I have. Music is something visceral in me, something that exudes from me, and even when I’m not thinking about it, I will still be making music, always.”