The abolition of copyright
It may amaze but it would be better for artists and the public domain
Basic principles and practices of the copyright system are contested in the Western world. It should not amaze us that many from non-Western countries regard this system with even more doubt. It does not square with the philosophies that nourish their cultures. In this overview I have tried to bring some order to the problem by categorising it. But much more research and discussion are needed to get grip on what really is at stake. It must surely be possible to construct an adequate philosophy that combines the rights of artists to make a living, stimulates creative adaptation, recognises that much knowledge and creativity belongs to the commons, and that respects the public domain. A subsequent task would be to translate this into an adequate system to replace the existing old-fashioned copyright system. Let us try to imagine a world without copyright.
Copyright was once a means of guaranteeing artists a decent income. Aside from the question as to whether it actually functioned this way - most of them never made much, if anything, from the system - we have finally to admit that copyright serves an altogether different purpose in the contemporary world. It is now the tool that allows conglomerates in the music, publishing, imaging and movie industries to control their markets. They decide whether the materials they have laid their hands on may be used by others. And if they allow it, under what conditions and at what price does this happen? European and American legislation extends them the privilege of a window of no less than seventy years after the death of the original author. The consequence of this is the privatisation of an ever-increasing share of our cultural expressions, because this is precisely what copyright does. What else? Our democratic right to freedom of cultural and artistic exchange is slowly but surely taken away from us.
Yet, a fascinating development is taking place before our very eyes. Millions of people exchanging music and movies over the Internet refuse to accept any longer that a mega-sized company can actually own millions of melodies. So, digitalisation is gnawing away at the very fundamentals of the copyright system. But there are other concerns as well. We should recognise the reality that most artists derive no financial benefits from the copyright system, which instead wreaks its havoc on them. It is also unacceptable that we have to consume cultural creations the way they were dished out to us, and that we may change neither title nor tidbit. We thus have every reason to ponder about a viable alternative to copyright.
What might, in our vision, such an alternative conceptualisation of copyright look like? To arrive at that alternative, we first have to acknowledge that artists are entrepreneurs. They take the initiative to craft a given work and offer it on a market. Others can also take that initiative, namely producers or patrons, who in turn employ artists. All of these artistic initiators have one thing in common: they take entrepreneurial risks.
What copyright does is precisely to limit those risks. The cultural entrepreneur receives the right to erect a protective trade barrier around his or her work, notably a monopoly to exploit the work for a near century. That protection also covers anything that resembles the work in one way or the other. That is bizarre! We must keep in mind of course that every artistic work - regardless of whether it concerns a soap opera, a composition by Luciano Berio or a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger - derives the better part of its substance from the work of others - in other words, from the public domain. Originality is a relative concept. In no other culture around the globe, except the contemporary Western one, could or can anyone ever call themselves the owner of a melody, an image, a set of words. It is therefore a gratuitous exaggeration to allow such work such a far-reaching protection, ownership title and risk-exclusion, because that is exactly what copyright has to offer.
Let us suppose that we do go in the direction of the abolition - the direction in which digitalisation is taking us - consequently, we would have a broad public domain of artistic expression everybody could draw. What would happen? The cultural industries would lose their monopolistic exclusivity and right on works of art, which for the main part have their roots in the public domain. There is no reason to romanticise the genius who creates out of nothing, and cultural industries are not creators at all! Nor would it make sense for cultural industries to invest heavily in blockbusters, stars and bestselling authors and in all the gadgets, t-shirts and theme parks surrounding the books, films and songs that refer to each other functioning s endless publicity tools.
However, the abolition of copyright will only properly materialise when conditions for the production, distribution and promotion of cultural goods and services are normalised in every respect. This means that dominant market positions that harm broad access to cultural communication also have to be addressed. We stress the need for cultural policies to ensure that no single enterprise can dictate the flavour, set the tone, or almost single-handedly determine what we will see, hear, read and enjoy. Always in history markets have been regulated and organised by public authorities. There is therefore nothing new in revitalising the different tonalities and possibilities of competition policies. Interestingly, as a consequence of the 2007/2008 subprime mortgage crisis, the idea of regulating markets is winning respect again.
The market-dominating practice of the cultural giants should be stopped in any case. Ronald Bettig, taking the example of films, considers it
legitimate to question the spending of as much as $100 million or more for the production, distribution, and marketing of major feature films in terms of taxing our society's budget for cultural creativity. Many more filmic visions could be available if these resources, as well as the training and technology to produce the films, were more broadly distributed.3
Such 'normalisation' of the market would create attention space for the multitude of other artists now being excluded from public interest by the dominance of a few cultural conglomerates. While the present copyright system provides a substantial income for only a limited group of artists, this new market openness will give thousands of artists a reasonable income. Why? Because it gives them the opportunity to find audiences, readers and buyers not hindered by the market dominance of a few cultural industries.
The change from copyright to a normalisation of the cultural market by abolishing copyright and the re-instalment of a level playing field also makes the artistic work less sacrosanct. It may be adapted creatively, and this should be encouraged. Nobody should have the right to freeze our cultures, as happens in the Western copyright system, and to own and filter their cultural products exclusively. It may take some time to get used to this analysis of copyright that I present here briefly. On the other hand, people who have been exchanging music and films since the Napster era, artists who sample in the digital domain, and audiences who buy pirated CDs do not think they harm the particular interests of artists. The balance has been lost between private and public interests in cultural creation, production, distribution, promotion and reception, and so these users 'normalise' this balance again!
The background of the debate on copyright concerns the concept of private ownership which dominates the ideology of the beginning of the twenty first century, versus the neglected notion that we need to have a broad public domain of knowledge and creativity. We know that, under such circumstances, discussing ownership questions is a thorny issue. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile pursuit, because the Universal Declaration on Human Rights insists that everyone should have access to the means of communication. This Declaration also states that artists should have the right to make a living from their work. Our present copyright system hinders both purposes, and should be rethought accordingly.
One might wonder whether such protective layers - copyright and market domination - are really necessary for the evolving process of artistic creation. What then, do we think, can replace copyright? In the first place, a work will have to try its luck in the market on its own, without the protection offered by copyrights. After all, the first to market has the advantage of both time and attention advantage. This proposal strikes a fatal blow to a few cultural monopolists who, aided by copyright and market domination in the fields of production, distribution and promotion, use their stars, blockbusters, and bestsellers to monopolise the market and siphon attention away from every other artistic work produced by artists. That is problematic in our society which has a great need for plurality of artistic expression.
How do we envision this fatal blow will work? If the protective layer that copyright has to offer no longer exists, we can freely exploit all existing artistic expressions and adapt them according to our own insights. This creates a most unpleasant situation for cultural monopolists, as it deprives them of the incentive to pursue their outrageous investments in merchandising associated with a single cultural product.
The effect of our proposal is that the cultural market will be cleansed of cultural monopolists, and that the cultural and economic competition between many artists will once again be allowed to take its course. This offers new perspectives for many artists. They are no longer driven from the public eye and many of them will then, for the very first time, be able to make a living from their work. After all, they will no longer have to waste their efforts on challenging - bowing down to - the market dominance of cultural giants.
Cultural monopolists desperately want us to believe that we will not have artistic creations and therefore also no entertainment without copyright. That is nonsense. We will have more, and more diversity. A world without copyright is easy to imagine. The level playing field of cultural production is a market accessible to everyone, and will offer us all a surprisingly rich and varied menu of artistic alternatives, to which we are entitled.