Copyright, copyright everywhere…

There is certainly no shortage of copyright in the news these days, and readers of this blog might wonder about my silence on subjects like the Supreme Court’s ruling in Kirtsaeng or the testimony before Congress by Register of Copyright Maria Pallante calling for the next great overhaul of the law. For starters, when I began writing IOM, I never intended for it to overemphasize copyright as a topic; and I have stated repeatedly in posts and comments that there are plenty of sites (see blogroll) hosted by legal experts in Intellectual Property, which I do not presume to be. In fact, one of my ongoing criticisms of the Web is that its mechanisms tend to bring out the armchair expert on all subjects, regardless of their complexity, which invariably reduces even the most intricate matters to popular sentiment based on prejudices already held before discussion began.  An illusion of discourse heading in no particular direction.

I write this blog from two main perspectives — as an artist working to navigate a changing career in the middle of tremendous upheaval and churn; and as a citizen with a measure of socratic humility, admitting that my observations are limited and that there are always experts who know more than I about many things. I bet if I walked into my local diner and talked to the 50+ crowd, I could gather a smattering of opinions on say North Korea but probably receive blank stares on copyright.  If I did the same thing with a bunch of local sixteen year-olds, I might get blank stares on North Korea and an earful on the evils of copyright.  Odds are, of course, few of these opinions will be grounded in quality journalism, let alone first-source expertise.  Yes, the Internet makes it possible to cut through bumper-sticker politics and acquire expert information, but it’s also a great tool for repeating the bumper stickers, which is why amateurs can make a whole career out of repeating what people want to hear, regardless of substance. So it is with copyright.

If uninformed, declaratives about copyright are the froth in your latte, then TechDirt is the site for you. I read Mike Masnick’s post, for instance, concerning Pallante’s testimony, and the typical blogger thing to do would be for someone like me to critique that post fallacy by fallacy; but the prospect of doing so is almost as tedious as it is futile.  After all, both Masnick and I are about as expert on copyright law as we probably are on plumbing.  Those opposed to strong copyright protections already agree with his post, and those in favor will agree with mine. Meanwhile, I’m betting a large segment of the American population neither knows nor cares to know about the inner workings of these laws; so I often find myself wondering about the value of us amateurs arguing via blog over some of the more fleeting and granular aspects of a legal system that will likely take several years to evolve into its next incarnation.

So, for anyone who reads this blog and is not knee-deep in the gore of the copyright battle, the big picture as I see it this:  I believe the copyright system will change over the next decade or so, but if that change is predicated too much on the self-serving premises of its tech-industry antagonists, the results for artists in particular, and for society in general, will be regressive rather than progressive. It would be like allowing the oil industry to overly influence emissions policy.  Copyright stifles innovation is a popular meme and a cornerstone premise of the entire cabal aligned against the system, but this assertion is never supported by solid examples or data, which leads one to conclude that innovation describes what is contemporary and popular, regardless of whether or not it is economically progressive or, dare I say, fair.  We generalists could boil down the details to  a few fundamental questions when considering the future of copyright:  Is enterprise-scale piracy innovation or exploitation? Is the right of the author a civil right or a government handout?  Is copyright relevant for the individual or just a tool for big corporations?

These may be questions my kids’ generation will have to answer, but in order to do so honestly, they will need to come to terms with certain practical realities that don’t require legal scholarship.  First, they’ll need to recognize that the Internet is not an extension of themselves, but a technological piece of infrastructure over which just a few corporations wield unprecedented power.  Next, they’ll need to see past the selfish habit of acquiring media for free and accept that there is no such thing as an economy based on free stuff, that someone always pays and who pays makes a difference.  They’ll need to recognize that no matter what they believe about big media companies and lobbyists, flesh-and-blood, independent artists and small creative businesses are experiencing tangible and measurable harm. In fact, as I write this, musician and activist David Lowery, speaking at the Canadian Music Week’s Global Forum, just said the following: “The first week our new Camper Van Beethoven album came out, I watched one seed on BitTorrent distribute more copies than we sold.” I think you have to be both daft and depraved to describe this as innovation, and this kind of spin has no business informing the future of copyright.

I was asked the other day by a gadfly baiting me on Twitter if a “win” for me would be the triumph of the RIAA and the MPAA. I don’t know what that means, and neither does the gadfly; but these implicit accusations are typical of the associative politics to which neither conservatives nor progressives are immune.  Such interactions are circular, boring, and meaningless. And the hypocrisy is off the charts. I won’t pretend I’m a legal scholar, but the number of tech utopians who presume to lecture the creative community about how to make albums, motion pictures, and other works is truly staggering.

As I say, this blog was never intended to be all about copyright, and it occurs to me that part of its intent was to share observations from the perspective of developing new film projects in the current landscape. I admit that I am too easily attracted to the broad discussion, and I shall make an effort to steer this blog to be a little more film project focused, if for no other reason than film is next and may be more vulnerable than music.  It’s been a long time since Lars Ulrich was pilloried on the steps of Napster, and today we see musicians, from fairly obscure to the biggest names, coming forward to talk about artists’ rights in the digital age, and not without reason.  The truth is I don’t care if I or one of my colleagues develops a new film as a self-produced project, a deal with a Netflix, a traditional studio, or an established indie production company — whatever best serves the work.  But there is not one of these paths that is not founded on the right of the author to retain first choice in the process by establishing a precedent of ownership in the work.  Beyond that fundamental reality are many intricate details for professionals to work out and a whole lot of amateur-hour bullshit that deserves once and for all to be moved to the fringes of the debate.

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