Friday, July 08, 2011

Rant of the week - copyright (yes - again)

I have had it up to here with copyright. It's so broken now. And it pisses me off.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the purpose of copyright is: "To encourage a dynamic culture, while returning value to creators so that they can lead a dignified economic existence, and to provide widespread, affordable access to content for the public." Do you believe that this has been accomplished? Do you know many artists (aside from the superstars) who 'lead a dignified economic existence'? Do you consider yourself as having 'widespread, affordable access to content'? The big entertainment lobby makes tens of billions of dollars per year, where does all that money go? To the artists? Not likely. So remind me again who copyright is protecting... really.

In the US, the terms of copyright are mythical. Copyrights associated with author's death are 'life + 70 years' or in the case of copyrights associated with publication date, '95 years from publication or 120 years from creation whichever is shorter'. Does this seem reasonable to you? How exactly does this encourage a dynamic culture?

The problem with copyright as it exists today is that we're now expected to believe that copying other peoples' work is bad. If you look at the history of created works of any type over time, you will find that each work is inspired by, is a derivative of, or pays homage to a previous work. This has always been the case (Soon I'll be posting links to a phenomenal set of videos that proves this point very nicely). But we've allowed the entertainment industry to consider acts of creation through inspiration and copying for the purpose of parody and reporting to become synonymous with stealing. Is it really stealing? At what point do you draw the line between inspiration and theft? In my mind, theft of creative work only exists when you are pretending to be the original artist and copying their work with no credit.

For example. If a Pink Floyd tribute band performs a live concert playing an entire classic Floyd album, some camps would have you believe that this is Intellectual Property (IP) theft. I don't think it is at all. The original band has made money selling the original recording. They have made money performing their original material in concert. They have made money selling paraphernalia. I look at it this way - if Pink Floyd were still performing today, tribute bands wouldn't be in as much demand. Tribute bands don't exist because they are thieves. They exist because people can't get enough of a good thing and the source of the good thing isn't meeting their needs. The Floyd could make millions if they kept performing - but they choose not to. It doesn't matter why. So if they wanted more money, they only have to create more works or go on the road and perform.

Copyright really became a hot topic in the music industry when artists started using music samples in their new works. The original artists who created the music that was sampled wanted their cut or didn't even want the samples used at all. Again, my argument is simple - nobody stopped you from making derivative works using your own stuff. If somebody else comes up with a great composition based on pieces of other works, those original authors should be proud. I'm convinced that the samples make the original works more valuable, not less. In the grand scheme of things, the original artists end up with more money as a result of the renewed interest in the source material. Sampling doesn't just occur in music either. Dig deep into any classic Disney story and you will find elements, characters and plot lines lifted from earlier works (from Disney and others) with no attribution whatsoever. But you don't hear anything about this for a number of reasons. One - many of the original artists are dead. Two, the thieves are financially powerful and have legal might.

Unfortunately, big entertainment would have you believe that copyright is essential and it's the artist that matters, blah blah blah. What they don't tell you is that while they're suing YouTube or sending baseless DMCA take-down notices to regular consumers of content for infringing on protected works, they're putting their own stuff on YouTube and stealing royalties from artists by creating unauthorized greatest hits albums, whose profits often go directly to the label and nobody else.

So as you can see, my underlying philosophy when it comes to copyright is that it has become too restrictive. It continues to be more and more about greed. Copyright only serves to stifle creativity, the kind that has permeated our culture since its beginning. When I see someone take a classic comic and turn it into something new, something fresh based on the original characters, the original work is not diminished in my mind. It is strengthened even more. It's not time to make copyright stricter. It's time to take the shackles off and let creators be inspired as never before.

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