US innovators and creators join forces to reform copyright laws.
The advent of the Internet has led to a boom in the free exchange of ideas and code among software developers. For other creators and innovators outdated copyright laws continue to thwart the Internet’s potential as an almost unlimited source of inspiration. But change is afoot.
The Creative Commons project (www.creativecommons.org) has been trying to reform intellectual property protection for creators in outside the field of software development such as painters, poets and scholars. It has released an alternative copyright licenses that allow people to share their creative works on their own terms. People can download a Web application that allows them to label their creative endeavours with certain usage restrictions, which in turn can be read by others searching for ‘free’ online creativity. The project also aims to increase the amount of free material available by inviting artists to submit their works to its online ‘intellectual works conservatory’.
The project was started by Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford University and leading advocate of intellectual property reform in 2001. It is supported by influential members of the academic, business and artistic communities including Davis Guggenheim (director of hit TV series such as ‘24’ and ‘ER’) and Barbara Fox (Senior Software Architect, Cryptography and Digital Rights Management for Microsoft). It is based on the philosophy of ‘the commons’ as a place where resources are jointly owned and do not require special permission to be used.
In These Times (February 17, 2003) reports that the movement for copyright reform suffered a setback when the US Supreme Court ruled against a challenge to the copyright laws led by online publisher Eric Eldred, represented by Lessig. But Lessig remains undeterred, writing in his blog shortly after the ruling, ‘When the Free Software Foundation, Intel, Phyllis Schlafly, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, Kenneth Arrow, Brewster Kahle, and hundreds of creators and innovators all stand on one side saying, “this makes no sense,” then it makes no sense. Let that be enough to move people to do something about it. Our courts will not.’
Copyright laws protect expressive works against unwanted alteration or exploitation by assigning people exclusive rights to distribute or copy their creations. Until 1976, in the United States if people did not invoke copyright protection, their works became public property, freely available to all and sundry. Now they are automatically copyrighted for a period of 70 years. Any photograph, poem, computer application or drawing you come across these days belongs to someone else. And you cannot use it without their permission.
The so-called ‘incentive argument’ claims that without copyrights the supply of creative works would dry up as people refused to produce for fear of having their efforts stolen. In his recently released book ‘Arts Under Pressure’, Joost Smiers says that the facts tell a different story. The Dutch professor at the Utrecht School of Arts, points out that the notion that copyrights mainly exist to protect artists is false. Ten percent of the artists claim 90% of the money, while the other 90% are left to divide up the remaining 10%. On the other hand, companies that buy up the rights to creative works like AOL TimeWarner and Microsoft continue to amass fortunes while consolidating their control. Four companies now control more than 80% of the recorded music industry. Sotheby’s and Christie’s control the majority of the international art trade. More than 70% of the films showing in Europe come from Hollywood.
Smiers is worried that the skewed nature of the copyright business and the underlying neoliberal approach to intellectual property rights is threatening cultural diversity. The mass marketing approach of the distribution and ‘content’ conglomerates rewards ‘proven concepts’ and carefully steers clear of the unknown. His fears echo in a Canadian/French proposal currently being considered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO). The proposal calls for countries to sign a new International Treaty on Cultural Diversity. At the moment, international intellectual property rights fall under the jurisdiction of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which is dedicated to the eradication of barriers protecting goods, including creative ones, from the workings of the free market. If creative works remain under the auspices of the WTO it is inevitable that state funding of artists and academics will at one point be challenged as an unfair trading practice. Without funding local creators and innovators would have an even more difficult time of reaching their publics.
Smiers adds that the threat of copyrights stretches beyond the realm of arts and entertainment to other areas of culture. He mentions the example of farmers in India having to buy back their own seeds from a multinational company that bought the copyright to their centuries old ‘technology’.
The battle to reclaim the creative/cultural commons has just begun. According to Smiers it won’t be easy to transform ‘a system in which great financial and emotional interests have been invested’. But the calls for change are becoming louder all the time. A good thing too; no less than the future of creativity is at stake.
Joost Smiers, ‘Arts Under Pressure,’ (Zed Books, London, 2003) ISBN 1 84277 262 7.