I’ve followed and participated in the copyright debate for years, and I’ve come to realize there are certain patterns that repeat themselves. You can roughly say there are three lines of defense: One that appeals to emotions, one that appeals to pragmatism, and one that appeals to a sense of responsibility. I’m going to take this opportunity and try to break them down.
The first line of defense is the artists, sent out like cannon fodder to appeal to our emotions. The stories of the talented artists who pour their souls into their work and can’t make a decent living out of it are always heartbreaking. But guess what? It was never easy being an artist. You want a secure income? Go for a nine-to-five job. I think Henry Rollins said it best, when in an interview about his days with Black Flag, he said “And maybe you missed some meals, or the cops came and shut your show down, but man, you weren’t flipping burgers and you weren’t filling slurpies, and there’s something to be said for that.” The point here being, that everything is a matter of compromise. Either you get a boring job to secure an income and do your writing or painting or whatever your art of choice is in your spare time, or you go for it full time and expect to miss some meals. Actually making a living out of something you love to do is a luxury. The factory where I earn my pay doesn’t pay me because working there is fun. They pay me because it’s not! If it was fun I would work for free. And that’s why artists have a hard time getting paid; because they have about zero leverage. Everyone they ever negotiate with: club owners, record companies, publishers, et cetera, have leverage over you as an artist because in the end, you will perform regardless of the pay. You’ll perform for free beer in the bar and you’ll even pay to be published just for the sole satisfaction of being published. This is the truth for the majority of artists, and this is why so little of the money in the copyright industry lands in their pockets. But copyright does very little, if anything, to improve the artists’ situation.
The second line of defense is the industry itself. The argument here is that it’s an industry that involves a lot of people and if they go out of business, you may have a serious situation on your hands, with thousands and thousands of jobs lost. This argument has its points, and for someone reasonable who doesn’t just act upon emotions and therefore passes the first line of defense, this is a bit trickier. Even if you dislike the copyright industry, pure pragmatism may lead you to think that economic depression is even worse. But don’t worry. The copyright industry is fine and they’re not going out of business in a foreseeable future. And even if they were, well, it happens. Things become obsolete all the time. It would be tragic on some personal levels, and it may have effect on communities heavily reliant on copyrighted material. It could turn Hollywood into a ghost town, which would be kinda fun. In this case I believe copyright works – I just don’t think it’s good. It ensures companies long term income for a short term success, it keeps competition at bay since owning the license to a work means you can remake it again and again, while others need to put their effort into coming up with something new. And there’s always the possibility to sue someone. The scariest part of the copyright industry going out of business is actually all the unemployed corporate lawyers. Chasing you down the street offering their services, throwing themselves in front of your car at traffic lights in desperation. If you offer a homeless lawyer something to eat he’ll choke on it and sue you. It will be a zombie apocalypse suited up!
The third line of defense is the claim “without copyright, there will be no culture”. This argument appeals to a sense of responsibility, like an environmental issue would. And while it could, or should, be hard for a politician to hide behind the second line because policies should not be about keeping an industry alive, and even harder to hide behind the first line for the same reason, this is the argument that politicians really get behind. Because it seems morally right. We have to respect copyright, for our children. We want the future generations to enjoy culture too, right? A world without culture, without the fine arts and the entertainment, what a horrible future that would be.
Of course, this is complete and utter bullshit. Culture was created long before copyright was ever invented. And it will continue to be created even if all the copyright laws are flushed down the drain tomorrow. Even if there wasn’t a chance in hell to earn a dime off of your creation, it wouldn’t even make a dent in the flow of culture. People will continue producing culture. How do I know this? Because the Internet is full of them. Blogs, YouTube, et cetera. From simple puns and lolcats to amazingly well-produced films – it’s all culture and it’s all created without money changing hands. This may seem shocking to the Lars Ulrichs of the world, but to the rest of us it’s no mystery.
The simple explanation is that expressing oneself is a far more important drive than money. This is also why people continue to remix culture to create new culture, even knowing that they might get sued. Or in even worse cases, why people continue to express themselves and create culture in places where the regime will crack down on them for doing so. There are a few loud voices in the debate leading people to believe that money is the superior drive in creating culture. And while that may be true for them, it’s not for the rest of us. For us it’s about expressing ourselves, receiving a pat on the back for the effort. It’s about the satisfaction of having created something. When I see an article I’ve written being shared I don’t grind my teeth over all the money I’m not making off of it (or the money I’m losing, as they say). I have a warm feeling of pride and accomplishment over the fact that my words, my thoughts are in circulation, and that people obviously like it. And every time I grow an inch. If people were required to pay for my writing, chances are they wouldn’t, and I would lose out on those fifteen minutes of fame and that, to be honest, complacency. And I would still have to go to work on Monday, just without that extra inch that gets me through the day.
Copyright was never about guaranteeing the artists pay. If it were, it would have to be considered an epic failure, as shown by Rick’s article the other day. Nor was it put in place to ensure that a proper amount of culture would be created. If it were, that would mean no-one created anything culturally noteworthy before copyright was invented. There are caves in France that say otherwise. Copyright originates from a form of censorship. It stems from monopolies given from the state to approved companies to make copies. Hence the word copyright. To be fair, the copyright laws have changed since then and, while wildly ineffective, can be said to protect right-holders’ interests. But it is still a monopoly given by the state, and it is still effective as a tool of censorship. So here’s the million dollar question: If you know that copyright at its origin was a form of censorship, and you accept the statement that culture wouldn’t be created without copyright, why would copyright ever have been invented? Why would there have been a need for copyright if what copyright was to shut up – but ended up protecting – was never there to begin with? You follow?