Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

“Give us your money or Salman Rushdie gets it!”

No, not the government’s latest way of convincing us that we need to spend £4 billion on ID cards, but the other strategy for arguing for copyright expansion. A big part of sound recording term extension consisted of unplugging Cliff Richard from his various catheters and parading him round to whinge about how he’d soon stop getting paid for recordings he laid down in 1958 (just the recordings mind – if anyone were depraved enough to record a cover of “Living Doll”, Cliff would still get his cut as song-writer). Whilst the prospect of Sir Cliff no longer being able to pay his plastic surgeon doesn’t seem to have worried the general public as much as the British Phonographic Industry might have hoped, it taps into an honourable tradition of framing the copyright debate around the starving artist that’s been going on for some time now. There’s a very weak argument here about how copyright should work as a pension fund for authors, but I think we can all see the problem with the argument that you should be getting paid for something you did in 1956, no matter how good it was (if it’s not obvious, imagine your plumber coming round every year and demanding money because the toilet he fixed was still working…).

There, is, however, a slightly more serious argument going on here, which is that copyright is not about anything as crass as economic incentives, but about ensuring that artists should be rewarded for their work, and, just as importantly, be allowed to exercise a degree of control over it. This idea has a certain amount of immediate appeal – we all, from time to time, say things that we’re particularly proud of and feel upset when people misrepresent them, either through claiming that they actually thought of them, or getting them wrong and butchering them beyond belief. We also tend to feel pretty depressed when we see things stray to far from their original meaning, or jump the shark, and we tend to think of authors as the best custodians of that meaning: this, for example, is the principle organizing my recurring dreams of J.R.R Tolkien returning from the grave to wreak bloody vengeance on Orlando Bloom for his role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Whilst such sentiments are admirable in their place, my feeling is that they are basically wrong-headed in many circumstances. I also have a fantasy where anyone who uses the Theory of Relativity to mean “everything’s relative” gets sent back in time to observe their mistake again and again, until they learn better; no-one, however, has started suggesting we hand out property rights for scientific theories. This is a very good thing, because, however annoying such theories may become when misunderstood by stoned teenagers, they’re more useful if anyone (teenagers included) can have access to them without having to ask permission first: sure, there’ll be a lot of shit, but the ideas are much more likely to be developed in interesting ways if anyone can pick them up and play with them.

Why, then, is the same thing not true for art? Yeah, people take good works of art and butcher them, but they also take old material and do great things with it, things that strong copyright holders could potentially stop them from doing (another interesting case is literary criticism). People who think of copyright in terms of economic incentives have an answer for this (“Because without incentives the stuff wouldn’t get made at all”) but it’s precisely that argument that people arguing for copyright on the grounds of the moral right of the author want to get away from.

A final point is that some countries do go much further than Britain or the US in allowing for the protection of an author’s vision through copyright. In France, for example, authors are allowed to withdraw their work from the public sphere, or prevent further modifications of it, even after publication. According to Peter Drahos, the US copyright lobby was very keen that this sort of stuff should be left out of any international copyright agreements like TRIPS, because it was felt that if authors had the right to disagree with financial backers (or, in the case of films, test audiences) about changes then that would introduce to great a level of economic uncertainty into the industry. Moral: authors’ rights might be great to talk about when you’re going to the government asking for an extension on your monopoly, but you’d be a fool to take them seriously in real life.


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