Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Imagine a world without copyright

Graeme Philipson
June 24, 2008

Sydney Morning Herald

Anyone can copy anything, anywhere with the latest technology.

TWO weeks ago in these pages, I wrote about the draconian proposals for a new Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement being considered at the G8 meeting in Tokyo next month. The proposals would enable any border guard, in any treaty country, to check any electronic device for any content that they suspect infringes copyright laws, and to destroy or confiscate the offending device on no grounds beyond their own suspicions that it carries offending content.

I received more feedback from the piece than for anything I have written for years. The emails came from all around the world, including my first ever missive from Venezuela. Truly, these are global issues.

Most of my correspondents agreed that the proposed treaty is massive overkill, an attempt by the record companies and film studios to enforce the unenforceable - to try to stamp out copyright infringements by putting the burden of proof onto every user of digital content.

I opined that this action will most likely have the unintended consequence of criminalising the entire community, leading to a backlash against it, further hastening the inevitable end of copyright as we know it today. My comments on copyright were sufficient to cause a few people to criticise my views, with the tired old question: "If there's no copyright, how will artists get paid?"

For almost 10 years I have written, in these pages and elsewhere, about this important issue. But every time I bring it up, the same objections are rolled out. The consistent theme is that copyright is necessary, because it is what protects the "intellectual property" (a weird concept in itself, when you think about it) of the artist, be they musician, painter or film maker.

Let me briefly state a few simple facts.

1. Copyright is not the natural order of things. It is an aberration, born in 18th-century England, designed to protect publishers, not writers. The great artists of antiquity and the classical era had no copyright protection.

2. In recent years publishers have used their financial muscle to vastly extend the provisions of copyright law, so that works are protected for 70years or more after the artist's death. Clearly, this has no benefit to anyone except the publishers.

3. The exponential growth of digital technology has made it super-easy to duplicate content - text, music, image. Anybody, anywhere, can at any time copy anything.

So we are faced with a situation in the 21st century (The Digital Millennium) where increasingly vicious laws are being used to enforce increasingly unenforceable actions. The copyright mafia - those who benefit from these anachronistic laws - are attempting to use legislation to halt the march of technology.

The absurdity of their actions is increasingly apparent. A single mother in Canada was recently fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for sharing downloaded songs with her friends. It remains illegal in Australia to record a TV series - only single shows are allowed for one-off "time shift" viewing.

(A correction here. In my original piece two weeks ago I said it was illegal to record music on to the same format - CD to CD, for example. It is - and has been for all of the last two years - legal to do this. Just don't lend it to a friend, or you might go to jail.)

It is, to my mind, self-evident that an unenforceable law is a bad law, but we still lock people up for smoking marijuana, so it's not self-evident to everyone. But there's something very wrong with any law that makes criminals of most of the population.

I have no time, as may be apparent, for the legions of middlemen attempting to retain their monopoly of the distribution of content beyond the era when the limitations of technology meant that they added value to the equation. But I do feel for the struggling artists who at least receive some benefits, in the form of modest royalties, from the existing system.

These people cling to the existing copyright laws, providing a convenient shield for the parasitic publishers who received most benefit from them, because many of them see no alternative. Every time I write of the death of copyright I get a few emails from songwriters who challenge me to provide an alternative to the current system.

So let me play the devil's advocate. Let us imagine a world with absolutely no copyright protection. Anybody could copy anything any time. How would artists get paid?

Musicians would have to rediscover the uncertain joys of performing (noticed how many old artists are now back on the road?) The internet, to the intelligent performer, is an added audience, not a rival, Painters would - gasp - accept commissions or find a patron.

Composers likewise (did you know that Bach and Mozart were so prolific because they wrote a new piece for every occasion? The idea that their music would be written down and copied and played by someone else at another time was alien to them). Songwriters would sell a song to a performer (again, and many now do).

Writers would be paid once. Indeed, many currently are - I have made a good living by the pen for almost 30years, and never once received a royalty cheque. Filmmakers would have to find patrons (as many now do - they are called subsidies), or do one-off jobs for a fixed price.

One correspondent said giving something away for free was not a viable business model. Tell that to Google, or YouTube, or the open source software community.

Which brings us to the whole issue of software, copyright and intellectual property. Let me tackle that in another column.

graeme@philipson.info

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/06/23/1214073146713.html

2 comments:

taximezzo said...

Hi there, interesting post. In many ways I agree with you too. However, I have just completed my tax return and it made for sobering reading.
I am a musician. I perform, teach and run workshops. I am trying to set up my own group which plays little known 18th century music. I work pretty much all hours of the day, not only at the coalface, but practicing and studying to maintain my skills, collecting resources and researching the 18th century music that we play. Having completed my accounts, I realised that, all in all I had made a not very handsome profit of £1,113 last year from music.
Your post implied that musicians (and other creative types) simply sit around waiting for the money from copyright royalties to roll in. As a musician, I can honestly say that to get paid performance opportunities when you have yet to establish yourself is VERY difficult (and nigh on impossible if you play original music, as I used to do.) The reason? People expect musicians to give their work for free on the live scene too, or even worse, pay for the privilege.
I have this argument time and time again with people that are not musicians. They cannot seem to understand that musicians are paid (when they get paid) appallingly given the time and effort required to perform to a goodl standard. The fees that people are prepared to pay in no way reflect the years of study and practice. It has taken me, personally, 4/5 years of hard, hard work to get to the stage where I can take my first tentative steps to singing classical music for a paying audience. That’s about the same as a doctor or lawyer. And should I continue singing, I will need to pay for regular coaching sessions throughout my career.
If a musician/artist is the position of collecting royalties in the first place, that position has most likely been won through years of sheer hard graft and living on the poverty line with no guarantee of anything to show for it. Don't they deserve something for that? There is a place for tribute and covers bands, but do we really want all musicians to spend all of their time doing that to earn money, rather than writing new material?
In the past, new music only got written because it was funded by the aristocracy. Do we want that situation again, where professional musicians reflect the agenda of a social elite? Back in the day, the rich were the only people with access to art, and public concert halls only came into being when the publishing industry took off, in the 18th century.
Bodies such as the Arts Council were supposed to fill that gap, but again, will only fund the activities that suit their agenda. And they can have their funding cut on a whim if a government decides to bankroll an overpriced sports day (I am UK based in case you hadn't guessed). I’m not a luddite, I love the internet, and I use it to promote our work. Much of our stuff is up there with a creative commons license. I don't want to criminalise people for listening to us.
I agree that current business models of copyright have broken, and it would take a better person than myself to suggest an alternative, however, society does need to value the contribution that creatives make, there needs to be some mechanism by which we can make a living from our efforts someday and possible make up for the lean years. I didn't get into music to make wads of cash, but as I said before, I do work very hard and for very little, because I have focused my time on producing something new and different. Surely, the prospect of a decent living at some point is not too much to ask for?

RT said...

Thanks for your input. I'm not sure I do agree with you about entitlement to money for the "sweat of the brow". It seems implicit in what you write that you don't rely on copyright to earn an income. It may indeed add additional income for some, especially for a very few superstars. For the majority of artists I don't think copyright = income. However, there is more to this, and that is how fundamentally wrong the implications of copyright are in the digital age - it necessarily entails all copyright owners (a lot of people) ostensibly having the right to monitor all activity on the internet for material they have contributed to. If ultimately you find you are not making enough money to keep you happy I think you should consider a different or additional job.