Occasional Ramblings on Sound and the Creative Process
Note: This essay was written for a class (Information Policy) I am currently taking as a graduate Library and Information Studies student at Florida State University. I got to the end of writing it and thought it would make a good blog entry, since I approach the problem from a personal perspective. Looking forward to reading comments about this one!
As an artist and musician, I tend to think about copyright on a fairly regular basis – likely more often than the average person. My interest in the subject comes down to two questions – what constitutes fair use of others’ works and creations and how can I protect my own works from infringement, ensuring I have an opportunity to profit from my labor?
The first question arises out of my practice as an artist. Like many painters, I sometimes make use of reference images to help me work out visual problems or create new works. I also make collages from magazine clippings. Finally, to promote and sell my music, I produce album art, which usually consists of digital collages and graphics produced by combining various photographs on the computer. In each of these cases, I always wonder about fair use. I aim to respect the copyright of others and create wholly original works, but to a certain extent, my process does involve remixing and reusing the works of others.
I usually ponder over my second question when it comes to my music/sound art, rather than my visual art – I wonder about how to protect my ability to profit from what I have created. Where my visual art usually results in a single, unique, manifestly physical object (valuable precisely because of its originality – a print would not have the same value as the original painting), my sound art is created, produced, and sold digitally. It is readily copy-able and sharable. Like many musicians, I wonder if it would be possible to profit from my work, were it to land on a torrent site. Would anyone buy what they can get for free?
Although I have researched copyright, established a working model of fair use, and even studied the concept in classes, copyright remains a hazy issue for me. Copyright law is complex and easy to misinterpret. Enforcement of the laws are spotty and inconsistent. In a more perfect world, the laws would be simple, easy to understand, and enforced.
Copyright and Changing Social Values
If, like me, the idea of the enforcement of copyright law makes you wince, then you are likely aware of the current state of affairs. Only a serious overhaul of the system would make consistent enforcement acceptable to the average person. These days, many new works are now “born digital” or converted to digital formats, making them readily accessible and easy to copy. Although those who have most profited from the idea of copyright continue to cling to the convention, lobby the government to protect their interests, and occasionally bring litigation against those who infringe on it, the everyday person has taken to the internet and is awash in media they have (or could have) obtained for free. Social mores are changing rapidly in the face of the embarrassment of riches available with a click of a mouse or the tap of a touchscreen. Copyright simply has not kept up with this trend.
Still, copyright remains a good idea in principle – the notion that individuals should be able to hold the rights to their own works and thereby profit from them (and control them) is sensible. After all, converting an idea to a completed work is often quite time-consuming and difficult. Copyright assures that the creator will have the opportunity to be compensated for his or her work for a certain length of time, before the work becomes part of the public domain. Copyright is thus intended to ensure creative works get made, for the benefit of both the individual and for culture on a whole.
Still, ask the average artist (this one included) why he or she toils away in their studio, and they are more likely to say “Because I love making things” than “Because I want to get paid”. Most of the musicians and artists I know create for the sheer pleasure of it, to expand their knowledge/understanding, or for the rush of satisfaction that accompanies defeating a technical challenge. Creating artistic works is often a labor of love. There is intrinsic value in the process of creating something – and there is also cultural value assigned to works which may very well be independent of any price tag also attached. I can appreciate the value of a work of art at a gallery – I can be moved and changed by a piece, I can be inspired to a valuable dialog with others – and yet still not purchase it.
Given what I have discussed, what is one to make of the future of copyright? How could the law be improved? Should it be done away with altogether? If it is done away with, what will the impact be on creative production?
Despite my own desire to profit from my artworks and the seemingly clear-cut path copyright provides to that end, I would argue that copyright as it currently stands should go the way of the dinosaur – and in fact, I suspect that the necessary change is already afoot.
Quite simply, in the face of this bombardment of media, creation is moving from the hands of a select few to the hands of all. Everyday people are not just consuming, but making media. Given the rapid onset and evolution of the digital age, where more and more sophisticated tools of production are appearing – often for free – on more and more devices and computers, experiencing the pleasure and benefit of making and sharing things is becoming an everyday activity for a huge array of people. Our hands were freed from the till by the industrial age – now we have an array of production tools of another sort with which to fill our time.
If everyone is a maker (or has the opportunity to be a maker) in our technology-infused, post-industrial world, then the risk of creative production disappearing is nil. Thus, copyright is no longer necessary to assure the creation of works.
However, if we do away with copyright entirely at this juncture, we still have the problem of money and control. Even in a culture of creators, there still will be the cream that rises to the top, the artists, musicians, dancers, actors, and more who will produce the most inspiring, relevant, and rich works. Supporting the “special” creative productions of these people is vital to maintaining a meaningful conversation that pushes our culture forward. How do we provide the necessary support to these artists without copyright as we know it today?
There is a three part structure that I would propose – two parts of which are already unfolding. This first part is crowdsourcing. Most would agree that creative production is beneficial to our culture. What if we funded that production, instead of the product itself? Crowdsourcing is being used to fund albums and films – artists submit a proposal to the public and in donations of a few bucks here and there, fans support the venture. En masse, their contributions become a viable support. If crowdsourcing becomes the norm, artists will still have the opportunity to make money, but their products will be freely available. Ideally, those artists with the most merit (or the most clever marketing strategy) would rise to the top and receive the most funding.
The second part of my proposal has to do with performance. Musicians have already discovered that they can still make money from live performance in the digital age. Similarly, even though they could easily download a pirated copy, many people will pay money to see movies at the theater because the experience is heightened compared to watching on a small screen at home. Performance and providing a “premium experience” remains profitable. Thus, the most successful cultural producers in a future, copyright-free (or copyright-different) world will use their products as marketing tools and will profit from performing their works, speaking about their works, telling stories, and variously gracing others with their presence and talent.
The above two points describe how the monetary aspects of copyright might be addressed, were it to be changed or eliminated. However, there is a final aspect to contend with, and that is control. While copying is the best form of flattery by some yardsticks – and while derivative works can often drive sales or appreciation of the original work – there is still a moral obligation to allow artists to control their creations and have a say in who uses them and how, if they so desire. After all – our culture places a premium on the value of the individual and on originality. Therefore, I would suggest that copyright be moved to an opt-in, registration-based system. Artists who wish to copyright their works could do so, for a certain term, but with no extensions. Given how much content would naturally fall into the public domain and be freely available in this new paradigm, copyright could once again be enforced.
This system would by no means present a perfect solution – however I do think that it would be a significant advancement from the current confusing and outdated system. Public debate, innovation, and law-making could certainly work out many of the kinks in such a system – unlike current copyright, where the system is essentially stalled out and stuck with little hope of redemption.
I began this essay by outlining my own stake in the issue. As an artist, I want to be able to profit from my work – but I also would like to be able to use the plethora of resources out there as references or materials to create new original works as well. The way copyright currently works, my ability to do either is by no means assured. My work may be placed up for download on the internet despite my copyright, or I may inadvertently step past fair use when making new works. Thus, it seems that a new paradigm is needed to deal with the issues at the heart of copyright. I look forward to seeing where this all goes in the future!