To Support Diversity, Independent Creators Should Not Give Up on Copyright

On Monday, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation and Policy Center (GPIC), in collaboration with Copyright Alliance, hosted a panel and roundtable discussion entitled A Conversation on Diversity and Inclusion in Copyright. The main topics discussed were the importance of fostering diversity among creators and creative works as well as a desire to see more diversity among the attorneys and other professionals specializing in copyright law and policy. In addition to the two panel discussions on those themes, video statements were submitted by creators working in music, film, and visual arts, and each described copyright protection as essential to their creative careers. (See participants list below.)

During the roundtable segment, I asked what might be improved about the copyright system to better support diversity in creative production. Rachel Kim of Copyright Alliance and Karyn A. Temple, former acting Register of Copyrights, now General Counsel at MPA, noted the goal to make registration easier at the Copyright Office because, of course, registration is necessary to fully enforce copyrights for U.S. authors. Temple added that the copyright small claims board, which will begin operating in the Spring of 2022, should help make copyright enforcement more accessible to a greater number of independent creators.

There is no question that, in addition to institutional changes within media companies or law firms etc., one of the best ways to foster diversity in creative careers is to inspire independent authors to participate in the copyright system in the first place. Because unfortunately, most do not.

A core principle of copyright law is that it is fundamentally egalitarian—a bundle of rights vested in any individual, from anywhere, who creates works of expression and makes those works available to the public. But the practical barriers to enforcing those rights, especially in contrast to the ease of infringement in the digital age, has been catalytic in discouraging entrepreneurial creators to the point of perhaps believing the narrative that “copyright is exclusively for big corporations.”

That theme, amplified by vocal copyright critics over the last twenty or so years, has played a role in discouraging the individual author about the value of his own rights. The message that the internet “bypasses the gatekeepers,” was, in addition to being overstated, implicitly coextensive to the assertion that the individual’s copyrights are meaningless in contrast to “new” modes of reaching audiences and generating revenue. That internet platforms enable marginalized voices, including artists, to be heard is absolutely true, but the idea that this social benefit demands the price of abandoning one’s copyrights was, and is, untenable.

Nevertheless, the digital native whose development as creator happened to coincide with the “copyright wars” beginning in the 1990s, often has conflicting views about her own rights, which have been described by various critics as greedy, rent-seeking, obsolete, anti-speech, a barrier to her fans, etc. Thus, in addition to the systemic hurdles in copyright law for indie creators, there exist internal obstacles for some, who have been made to feel uncomfortable about asserting their legal rights. Add the dimension of race and a history of exploitative IP grabs to the mix, and the belief that copyright is solely for the already privileged may be an even greater impediment for the author who happens to be a person of color. Consequently, demoralization of the people who should be advocating for their copyright rights produces an ideological vacuum, which the anti-copyright crowd has filled with its own agenda.

Perhaps because I could read the names or see the faces of everyone participating in the roundtable via Zoom, it occurred to me that although the moderators and guests are correct that all corners of the copyright world have work to do when it comes to diversity and inclusion, the anti-copyright segment strikes me as remarkably homogenous in this regard. And, of course, when we turn to the principal beneficiaries of the anti-copyright agenda (i.e. Silicon Valley), the white-male curve bends almost ninety degrees vertical.

It is common enough to observe that most, if not all, anti-copyright ideas are hatched in the comfortable aeries of academia, where the authors of many unfounded theories neither experience, nor even understand, the challenges faced by most creative professionals. So, whether it is fair to describe the class of copyright antagonists as too White, it is certainly fair to call it a pastime of privilege to invent and promote policies that, in one way or another, would divest the author of some amount of agency in her copyrights.

So, to answer my own question, if I could choose one goal for the moment, it would be to convince as many independent creators as possible that their copyrights are not worthless, even if advocacy of those rights may be entangled with myriad conflicting views. Yes, there are practical obstacles to meaningful enforcement, some of which may only be addressable by legislation; but even that will be more likely attainable if the millions of entrepreneurial creators in the country refuse to abdicate their rights in a war of attrition. Because giving up is what the anti-copyright interests are counting on copyright owners to do, and that is certainly no way to support diversity and inclusion in creative works.

Photo by: Igor2006

A Conversation on Diversity and Inclusion in Copyright

Welcome & Program Overview

Rick Wade, Senior VP, Strategic Alliances & Outreach, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Terrica Carrington, VP, Legal Policy & Copyright Counsel, Copyright Alliance

Keynote Address

Representative Sharice Davids (D-KS)

Creator Video Appearance

Ebonie Smith, Music Producer, Audio Engineer at Atlantic Records; and Steering Committee Member of the Recording Academy’s Producers and Engineers Wing

Panel: Copyright Empowering Underrepresented Creators

  • Grace Wu, Executive VP, Entertainment Casting, NBCUniversal 
  • Moderated by: Rachel Kim, Copyright Counsel, Copyright Alliance

Creator Video Appearance

Yanique DaCosta, Graphic Designer and Fine Art Painter

Creator Video Appearance

Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, CEO/Founder of Red-Horse Native Productions

Panel: Careers in Copyright Empowering Underrepresented Communities  

Creator Video Appearance

Patrick “Guitar Boy” Hayes

Roundtable Discussion

Facilitated by Latricia Boone, VP, Equality of Opportunity Initiative, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Closing Remarks

Mei-lan Stark, Executive VP & Chief Counsel, Intellectual Property, NBCUniversal

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