You’re Watching Too Much TV—All Because of Copyright!

An editorial appeared in The Hill written by Martin Skladany, associate professor of law at Penn State.  Titled To curb dangers of media consumption, let’s reconsider copyright law, the article comprises an incoherent litany of social complaints; but to the extent one can glean any thesis from its dissociated and unsupported declaratives, I suppose it would be the following:

“…excessive copyright protection has turned art – which is meant to inspire us intellectually and support us emotionally, to enable us to cope with the uncertainty of life and the finality of death – into a glossy corporate weapon that Hollywood wields to effectively imprison vast swaths of society.  ‘We the people’ are ‘doing time’ in front of a screen.”

In sum,  Skladany thinks Americans have become mush-headed and morally depleted (as evidenced by our vitriolic political climate) because we are watching too much filmed entertainment; and the underlying cause of this addiction is strong copyright law, which enables “Hollywood” to keep us hooked on their “glossy” (i.e. frivolous) wares.  I have to say, as someone who’s never seen Game of Thrones and is more likely to be found reading than watching TV, that Skladany is behaving like a highfalutin prig; and in doing so, manages to make a hash of copyright law, art, filmed entertainment, journalism, and the topic of media gluttony all at the same time.  

For one thing, I have no idea on what authority he declares that the purpose of art is to “inspire us intellectually and support us emotionally, to enable us to cope with the uncertainty of life and the finality of death”?  Really?  Is that what Bukowski is doing?  Or David Lynch? Or Banksy?  Or Shakespeare for that matter?  Artists may hope to inspire intellectually at times—though certainly not always—but if indeed they were merely the self-help gurus Skladany seems to think they should be, their works would be intolerably tedious. 

If Skladany wants to propose that entertainment and news reporting have merged in a way that is unhealthy for journalism, that would be a hard premise to refute and certainly makes a worthwhile discussion on its own. Or if he wishes to opine on the not very original theme that “low art” tends to be more popular than “high art,” that’s also a separate conversation, albeit a purely academic one.  But neither of these topics justifies lumping all content that appears on all screens into a single category, labeling it “corporate mind control” and then, bizarrely, diagnosing copyright law as the underlying infection causing a social disease.

Like other academics of his ilk, Skladany refers generically to “Hollywood” as though all filmed entertainment emanates from a monolithic institution—one which is allegedly doing our thinking for us.  This is oxymoronic, like saying “Democratic Party Conspiracy,” because just like Democrats couldn’t organize a conspiracy of two, the diverse range of television and motion pictures in the market represent thousands of individuals with a million competing and interrelated ideas, aesthetics, values, egos, agendas, and resources. 

Some of those individuals are brilliant, funny, poignant, serious, etc. and have a talent for expressing themselves in ways that deserve to shape our thinking.  We call this art.  And the way of madness lies in Skalandy’s arrogant implication that we can parse which of these expressions comprise the “better” art in context to his assault on copyright law.  Or to put it another way, I think the world would be better off without reality TV, too, but copyright law has nothing to do with the fact that more people have seen The Apprentice than the oeuvre of Francois Truffaut.

It is unclear whether Skladany means to be imposing a value judgment about what he considers to be the “art” and “non art” among all motion pictures and television; but clearly he harbors such an opinion, or his perspective would make even less sense than his presentation.  He writes, “Reducing copyright’s excessiveness will hurt professional reporters and non-corporate artists to a degree, but, more significantly, it will also level the playing field with corporate entertainment.”  (I’ll let the “hurt to a degree” go for the sake of the larger point.)

By “excessive” copyright law, Skalandy refers solely to the duration of protection—certainly it is the only example he presents—and it is frankly impossible to fathom how shortening copyright’s terms would “level the playing field” and thus enable the “art” of filmed entertainment to better compete against the “non art” of filmed entertainment.  And this is assuming that all “art” content comes from independent creators while all “non art” comes from corporations, and as though no symbiosis exists between these two worlds.

Of course, parsing the “good media” from the “bad media” does not appear to be Skladany’s real goal.  It’s not that we’re watching too much low-quality material in his view, it’s that we’re watching too much, period—spending far too many hours glued to whatever the digital-age version of the boob tube is in lieu of more admirable pursuits like “volunteering” or “going to social events.”   This is where he truly wanders off on thought safari as pertains to copyright law.  I mean, even if we consider his opinion to be valid in this regard, what in blazes does copyright have to do with it?  I was going to watch Jessica Jones tonight, but now that the copyright terms are shorter on that show, I guess I’ll go volunteer at the homeless shelter.  Seriously?

Skladany is free to opine that Americans ought to be engaged in more useful activities than watching stuff on screens, but nothing about his credentials as a law professor, nor anything in this editorial in The Hill, suggests that he has anything fresh to add to that particular conversation, which began shortly after the first TVs were sold.  This is just one of several examples illustrating his lack of intellectual discipline, choosing instead to toss a bunch of haphazard ingredients into an anti-copyright casserole, serve it up half-baked, and expect people to eat it.  Or as my friend Neil Turkewitz stated in his response to yesterday, “…it may be the worst ‘academic’ piece I have ever read.”  

There is much more one could write in response to Skladany’s editorial, not least would be to rebut its underlying theory that weakening copyright would “level the playing field” rather than simply weaken individual authors.  But as he has not provided even a hint of support for this premise, it seems sufficient for now to say that he is simply wrong.

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