Copyright and Wrong

The digital revolution has ushered in a new culture war.  On one side are the creators: the artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers who, by law, hold copyright over the works they have originated.  Joining them—significantly—are the entities, most of them corporations, which have traditionally promoted and sold their creations: the major record labels, the publishers, the film and video distributors.

kellysfordLined up on the opposite side of the battlefield, thumping on their shields, are the digital audience legions, all of us who read, listen to or watch copyrighted material online, often without payment.  Joining this army are those corporations whose revenue is found in monetizing websites that traffic in copyrighted (as well as uncopyrighted) material, chief among them of course Google, which owns Youtube.

The history of this warfare is interesting, with many incremental skirmishes along the way.  Back in the days of vinyl, no one knew how to replicate an LP at home.  The record labels ruled, and their reputation as rapacious ogres was opportunistically well earned.  Tape came along, and with it rerecording, but the rerecorder still had to first buy the record.  Then music was digitized, processed into a computer file that could be copied indefinitely, with essentially no loss in quality.  And then came the nuclear bomb, although again the shock waves went out incrementally… the internet.  For the creators and their corporate allies, all hell broke loose.  And the market has never fully recovered.

A peace settlement for this war is remarkably difficult to achieve, and thus it drags on.  The defeat of Napster in 2001 seemed a clear victory for the creators, but as of 2011, music sales in the US were still at less than half of what they were in 1999.  As mentioned in an earlier post, Douglas and McIntyre, the largest independent publisher in Canada, filed for bankruptcy in 2012.  MGM, owners of the single most successful movie franchise in history—the James Bond films—sold for $5 billion in 2004, but is now evaluated at less than$2 billion.  The list of dead or wounded grows steadily.

One basic distinction that has to be upheld, if ever this war is to be over, is the one between those who ‘remix’ copyrighted material, mashing it up in their own artistic creations, and those who simply copy and sell unadulterated copies of other people’s work.  Remixers are artists unto themselves, complimenting rather than threatening the appropriated work.  Unlicensed resellers are simply thieves who deserve prosecution.

So too should we distinguish between individual downloaders of copyright material and the file-sharing and ‘locker’ sites who facilitate their downloading.  These sites have always employed the old dodge of, “We don’t actually do any illegal uploading or downloading ourselves, and we’re not responsible for any of our users who do.’  It doesn’t wash.  Here we should bust the dealers, not the users.

Too often even this distinction is not maintained by zealous corporations who, NRA-like in their paranoia, blindly prosecute any and all perceived violations of copyright laws, targeting even the smallest infraction.  Lawrence Lessig, in his book Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, recounts how lawyers from Universal Music Group threatened the mother of a two-year-old with a $150,000 fine after she posted a 29-second video of her son dancing to a Prince song on Youtube.  Give me strength.

Most importantly I think, this war needs to be seen as a war of corporate interests, none of them more altruistically motivated than the other.   As Danny Goldberg, former head of Warner Records, is quoted as saying in Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, a recent and effective rebuttal to Lessig’s book: “What happened is this extraordinarily powerful financial juggernaut entered society and changed the rules about intellectual property.  But that was not necessarily inevitable, and it wasn’t driven by all of these consumers—it was driven by people who made billions of dollars changing the rules.”

The creators are of course the ones who must be protected in this conflict.  The corporate interests who have sided with them have simply done so as technology changed and the commercial advantage swung from them to other corporate interests.  Just as Facebook lobbies mightily for weaker privacy laws, Google lobbies mightily for weaker copyright laws.  Why?  Because the effort serves their bottom lines.

There is very little moral high ground in the copyright culture war.  There is only the area off to the side of the main battleground, where the creators continue to suffer and die.



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