Copyright, Creativity and Culture

I got up this morning to see much hand-wringing on Twitter over Green policy on copyright. The policy in question states:

EC1011 On cultural products (literature, music, film, paintings etc), our general policy is to expand the area of cultural activity, that is ways that culture can be consumed, produced, and shared, reduce the role of the market and encourage smaller and more local cultural enterprise (see CMS200 onwards). Specifically we will

introduce a Citizen’s Income (see EC730), which will allow many more people to participate in cultural creation;
introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years;
legalise peer to peer copying where it is not as a business;
liberalise ‘fair use’ policies to operate outside the academic environment, and allow greater development from existing copyright material; and
make it impossible to patent broad software and cultural ideas.

People seem to be jumping at this, rather. In particular, there is a strong objection to shorter copyright terms with a “usual maximum of 14 years”. People are saying they’d lose too much income, that publishers couldn’t stay solvent or that it would be impossible to survive as a creative person. Caroline Lucas has since blogged that she understands this to mean life plus 14 years, which isn’t what I understand by the wording of the policy. Nevertheless, I’d like to address some of the more extreme reactions.

First of all, I want to be clear about two things:
1) Any change to copyright law will have negative impact on some people, particularly in the short term, and I would support and encourage careful transitional arrangements to reduce genuine hardship.
2) For many people in many situations, publishers (or record companies, or whatever) do add value; I am not suggesting that individual artists must or should personally look after every aspect of selling their creations from the first inkling of an idea to the day someone buys their (print, book, mp3, video, whatever) and has someone deliver it to their home. Most of us can’t do that efficiently.

Is extended copyright ‘necessary’ for artists to survive?

To start with: what is with the claim that without copyright on works older than 14 years, artists would starve, or only rich people could afford to be artists? This doesn’t ring true to me. In the UK, the copyright term has been life+50 years since adoption of the Berne Convention in 1886. However, within living memory, copyright terms have been much shorter than the current life plus 70 years in some jurisdictions outside the UK (try the United States if you don’t believe me; before 1976 copyright term was 28 years from the creation of the work), and it didn’t mean all artists were destitute or independently wealthy. Were some destitute? Absolutely. And the independently wealthy have always had an advantage in “fine” art and indeed in any discipline that involves a high proportion of unpaid learning. The reality is that throughout history, all but a handful of artists have earned their daily bread by teaching, having day jobs, doing piecework, and so on. When I was at Trinity there was a strong emphasis on developing a portfolio career, so I don’t think the life plus 70 years copyright we have now has significantly shifted the ability of artists to make a living just by doing art.

Another reason such complaints don’t ring true to me is, of course, because of my own experience. My best regular pay as a performer, both in terms of my hourly rate and in absolute terms, was when I was busking 20 hours a week; nobody was obliged to give me any money, and unsurprisingly, the amount of bootleg copying that went on was pretty low. My best regular pay as a composer, similarly, has been in the year and a quarter since I started accepting patronage while continuing to release all my work under a CC by-SA license. I wrote several weeks ago of a colleague whose sheet music piece was going out of print; it had sold 1800 copies over eight years, for which he received a grand total of about £130. He considered this “pretty good”. I now receive well over that for each piece I write, and my stuff will never go out of print.

In fairness this is partly because my work is not “in print”. My work will, through not appearing in bricks-and-mortar shops or traditional catalogues, not reach the same people that my colleague’s example work did, and if performed, it won’t be earning me any royalties. To be sure, publishers and distributors can add value, and if they didn’t exist we would probably have to invent them. But at the moment they seem to extract about 90% of the value of a work and throw a bit to whoever created it; I personally think this is moving over into rent-seeking behaviour. If a publisher adds so much value besides the content, why aren’t there more publishers snapping up CC-by-SA works and distributing them for profit? I’m certainly at a stage of my own career where they would be doing me a favour; but the reason this doesn’t happen (or if it does, not on a large enough scale that I know about it) is that publishers mostly don’t want to print something they can’t have some kind of monopoly on. This is not “adding value”. In fact, while I’m sure many publishers wouldn’t dream of it, I know of at least one music publisher who got a friend to sign their rights over and then decided not to publish the music after all.

The distribution models of the second half of the 20th century are breaking, not because of the ease with which most works can be copied (that is, shared with new audiences), but because the gatekeepers of that industry no longer have monopoly access to the means of production and platforms for distribution. When I was growing up, the idea of a musician doing their own recording and mastering was confined to the verry richest. Now I know several who do this labour themselves and use Bandcamp to distribute the results. When I was growing up, self-publishing simply wasn’t a viable option, given the cost of advertising and distribution; e-books and even online retailing of physical books have changed that world. Likewise, for most of my childhood and teens — and we’re talking the 1980s and 1990s here, I’m not that ancient yet — doing your own engraving at home and printing out music actual musicians could use wasn’t really a viable plan. But now even among composer colleagues who stick to traditional copyright models, producing your sheet music yourself and selling it through a website is pretty normal.

But even if none of this were the case — even if the majority of artists today made their living only from doing art, even if the current industry wasn’t difficult for the vast majority — the “artists will starve” argument is a red herring, because the first line of the Green copyright policy is designed to guard against exactly that: with a basic Citizens’ Income, the idea is that everyone would be able to get by. “It isn’t enough!” I hear you cry, and no, it wouldn’t be much, but Green policy on housing, medical care and education would reduce the chances of people falling through the cracks completely.

But what about peer to peer copying?

Horse, stable door, bolted. You can pay whack-a-mole with people who are passing your work on to others, or not. There are issues around easy sharing and attribution, but — and this is important — for the vast majority of people who make art, preventing peer to peer copying is impossible. You’ll never catch them all. Publishers (and record companies, and so on) are probably only going to go after this kind of sharing with high-yield investments (that is, very popular works or artists who make a lot of money for the company).

How will artists support their children if they can’t have a copyright term that’s life plus 70 years?

The same way plumbers do. Thankfully I don’t have to pay royalties to the plumber every time I use a drain that’s been fixed; I don’t have to pay royalties to the creator of the desk I’m writing this on every time I use it, either.

A better question here is why people who create things think they own the results of that creation; why they think they should continue to be paid even after they aren’t doing any work. I think part of this, at least in our society, is that we underpay creative work so terribly, initially.

How realistic are these proposed changes anyway?

We’ve had short terms of copyright before and the world didn’t end. However, I think in terms of the possibility of them actually happening, the proposals are not desperately realistic. The Green Party is very unlikely to form a majority government. Even if they did, it would take a while to get something like the Citizens’ Income in place; and after that, there’s the matter that copyright is subject to several international treaties, not the easiest things to wriggle out of on a whim.

My conclusion: Not voting for the Green Party on the basis of their copyright policy is fairly pointless, and I have my suspicions about the instigation of the hand-wringing. But don’t take my word for it: put this stuff in context with the rest of their manifesto for yourself.

Obviously, copyright is a huge topic, and I haven’t exhausted all I have to say about it here.

5 thoughts on “Copyright, Creativity and Culture

  1. [Page is now working again :-)]

    Interesting to hear this from the perspective of a musician, since most of the other people I’ve heard about this, from Philip Pullman down, have been writers.

    What you’ve said emphasises to me the fact that this is not a ‘one size fits all’ problem. As far as I can tell, the 14 year figure – and it increasingly seems the current policy is not life+14 years – comes from a theoretical economics paper from 2007:

    The 14 year figure in the paper is the result of a whole bunch of assumptions and the paper shows that, given other assumptions, you can get longer, and shorter, periods for what is defined as the ‘optimum’ outcome. What the appropriate assumptions might be and whether the definition of ‘optimum’ are all unclear, and are likely to vary from one field to another.

    I also have some more technical concerns about how some of the final numbers are derived from the model and, frankly, think some of them are wrong.

    This speaks for a rather rapidly reached policy that is in need of revision. However, I think the Greens are not doctrinaire about this and are amenable to reasoned argument about how and why this number might be changed.

    1. Dave,

      I agree — the “optimum” copyright length may well be different for different industries within the arts. However, I’m also an end-user the other direction: I regularly come across hymns I’d like to use and need to know whether I legally can; and we do already have different copyright situations for different types of work. It’s confusing enough having life plus 70 years for the actual music and words, twenty-five years for graphical layout of music, some other thing (I think) for actual editorial changes to music (not changing the notes but adding dynamics, phrasing etc), and then the editorial changes various publishers make to words — my work would be much, much simpler if the terms were straightforward.

      Bear in mind, too, that I know more about copyright than most musicians do! The vast majority of people in my position either a) just photocopy stuff anyway or b) if it’s church-related, sign up for a CCLI license and proceed to just photocopy stuff anyway (whether or not the work is included in the scheme.) CCLI in turn requires someone to do the reporting, which again, often doesn’t happen in small volunteer-run organisations.

      I’m not particularly attached to the 14 year period, myself, but current arrangements are certainly unsatisfactory.

  2. Sorry, your arguments don’t ring true. The product of a writer is quite different from that of a carpenter, plumber etc. Reproduction is the nature of the thing! Why we shouldn’t own the product? Because without us there would BE no product! If you want us to keep on writing then let us be able to leave a liveable income, or a pizza a month, to our kids!

    The Citizens’ Income is not nearly as satisfying as letting the market — ie readers — determine my income. It motivates me to write better books.

    And besides: I would not get a Citizens’ Income. Why not? Because a) I am not a citizen and b) I do not live in the UK and yet my books are published by UK publishers (as are the works of thousands of other writers and so I presume would fall under such a copyright cut.

    1. My last message is missing a word: I meant to say thousands of other “foreign” writers.

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