Copyright and Adolescence
Every once in a while a topic will come up in two or more contexts of my awareness that I would probably not notice without the reinforcement. Two articles addressing issues of copyright law recently appeared in the New York Times in as many weeks:
- Would the Bard Have Survived the Web? (14 February 2011)
- Free Trove of Music Scores on Web Hits Sensitive Copyright Note (22 February 2011)
The first might be considered more of a philosophy of copyright law, whereas the second deals with practical issues. If not for both sides of this same coin, this might be a much easier issue to ignore.
Copyright: Then & Now
Shakespeare is cited in the first article as a benefactor of an incipient profit-protection plan for artists:
When William Shakespeare was growing up in rural Stratford-upon-Avon, carpenters at that East London site were erecting the walls of what some consider the first theater built in Europe since antiquity. Other playhouses soon rose around the city. Those who paid could enter and see the play; those who didn’t, couldn’t.
By the time Shakespeare turned to writing, these “cultural paywalls” were abundant in London: workers holding moneyboxes (bearing the distinctive knobs found by the archaeologists) stood at the entrances of a growing number of outdoor playhouses, collecting a penny for admission.
Further along, the author draws the conclusion that “money changed everything…. As with much else, literary talent often remains undeveloped unless markets reward it.” The argument here is that if artists are not paid for their work, they will simply stop producing. If we want and value art, we need to protect the income of artists.
While being a good start for a philosophy of copyright, the unfortunate end result of copyright thinking results in the situation described by the second article:
“In many cases these publishers are basically getting the revenue off of composers who are dead for a very long time,” Mr. Guo said. “The Internet has become the dominant form of communication. Copyright law needs to change with it. We want people to have access to this material to foster creativity. Personally I don’t feel pity for these publishers.”
Economics of Art (Some Initial Thoughts)
A simple argument could be put forward: Everyone needs the means to obtain life-sustaining goods. An individual’s productive energy and time can be spent 1) cultivating life-sustaining goods; or 2) performing an activity in exchange for the means to obtain life-sustaining goods. If we (society) wish to have artists spend all of their productive energy and time producing art, they must be able to obtain life-sustaining goods in exchange for their time and effort producing art.
In contrast, it has been a formidable challenge to determine how best to coordinate an economy of artistic production:
- Artists can earn some income for direct exchange of an original product of art, e.g., a commission. The problem is that it would be difficult to piece together a living off of commissions alone.
- Artists can earn income from related activities—such as teaching—one of the most likely scenarios. And yet, if the goal is to provide the artist with maximum time to produce, how does this help?
- Artists can be supported by a regular salary from an institution—such as a government or church—to produce art on an ongoing basis, which gets more complicated when it takes larger organizations to be able to afford such an endeavor that would likely be unable to agree on aesthetics or goals.
- Artists can earn derivatives from prior work via copyright laws.
And none of these take into consideration the great likelihood that many artists make most or all of their income from some completely unrelated employment.
A World without Copyright…
The heart of the argument for copyright law in the first article is “centuries of scientific and technological progress based on the principle that a creative person should have some assurance of being rewarded for his innovative work.” We are to believe that if there was no copyright protection, artists would simply stop producing art.
I somehow doubt the story would end there. If that were entirely true, we would never have had artists before copyright law. For that matter, the practice of Shakespeare’s day was not copyright, but rather something a little closer to earning income for direct exchange of an original product of art, a performance. If a derivative production of a Shakespeare play were to come about that was equally good and yet charged less, the Bard would have to simply write something new and try again.
What would happen if copyright law were suddenly nullified? The first likely thing to happen would be a continuation of the present: consumers would download all sorts of music and books for free via the internet. Then, artists would likely find it unsustainable to continue spending their time producing art. But, it wouldn’t stop with this defeating blow to the arts. At some point, someone would want to support an artist again. According to Google’s autocomplete function, “without art life is” … “stupid.” [I’m sure there is a more eloquent way of putting this, but the irony of this made me smile ;)]
Respecting the Arts
Why do so many consumers—as the first article puts it—”transmit and receive copyrighted material without the slightest guilt”? I believe it may come from a sort of extended adolescence that is pervasive in many arenas of life. One historian [with whom you do not necessarily have to agree politically to get the point of the description] describes The Rise of the Adolescent Mind:
We live in a therapeutic age, one in which the old tragic view of our ancestors has been replaced by prolonged adolescence. Adolescents hold adult notions of consumption: they understand the comfort of a pricey car; they appreciate the status conveyed by a particular sort of handbag or sunglasses; they sense how outward consumption and refined tastes can translate into popularity and envy; and they appreciate how a slogan or world view can win acceptance among peers without worry over its validity. But they have no adult sense of acquisition, themselves not paying taxes, balancing the family budget, or worrying about household insurance, maintenance, or debt. Theirs is a world view of today or tomorrow, not of next year—or even of next week.
Because copyright law ensures sufficient “assurance of being rewarded for [an artist’s] innovative work,” it hardly matters if individual consumers actually support artists. “Someone will pay for it,” they argue. And they are right. Copyright law catches enough dissidence to scare most people into respect of the law. The question is, do consumers respect the artist? I would venture to say that the ubiquitous search for free downloads would suggest otherwise.
I’ll reiterate what I noted above: If not for the philosophical and practical sides of this same coin, this might be a much easier issue to ignore. Surely, IMSLP’s free hosting of public domain music does not deprive any artists from their due. Even the publisher’s admit that “there’s room for both of us.” The problem comes with the practicality of living artists earning their due. Even completely eliminating copyright law would likely make things worse before there was any chance of getting better (as I predicted above). And yet, I can’t help but see a lack of respect for art that I believe would be alleviated if consumers recognized that not paying for the art reduces the likelihood of future availability.