“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom…“ (Opening line of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens 1859)
There is a lot going on in the field of copyright-regulations over the last few years. It almost seems that those ridiculous warnings from the title pages of books are taking new measures that will not rest until each and every user on the planet will be criminalized in some way.
It came to a new extreme last month, as the US congress actually considered censoring the internet within the US, bowing to the entertainment industry while sacrificing freedom of expression on the way (1st amendment anyone?).
But some countries are starting to realize that at the digital age, the regulations of information, including copyrights, needs to undergo a fundamental change. Let’s hope this change will serve the interests of society and not those of media cartels like publishers, record companies and movie studios, who are investing a lot in lobbying their interests.
If it’s just one west, how come it has two sides?
There is a fundamental difference between the US-American and the European (as I will be demonstrated by the example of Germany) perception of IPR (Intellectual Property Rights), which sees the creation as something related to the creator’s personality. Therefore, the “Urheberrecht” (translated from German – creator-rights, not exactly copyrights) are laws meant to protect the person behind the creation from abuse of his/her creation and in some way guarding against abuse of the person him-/herself.
Of course, the way it’s being done de facto is much similar to the US copyright law, which has very little do to with the creator him-/herself and much more with the marketer (publisher, record company etc.), to which the creator usually transfers all the rights to the creation.
I think this fundamental difference is actually the key to solve the problem of copyrights in the digital age.
A step back
As I argued in “It’s all about romance”, the main aspect of the digital age is the separation of information from the physical medium and the different implication this separation has on production, distribution and consumption of information. One major implication is the matter of copyright – or more precisely, on the rights to use information and knowledge.
The old-fashion model, the one that the information industry is fighting so hard to preserve, is that a commercializer (let’s say a record company) gets all the rights to the use of the information (e.g. an album) from the artist, to produce an information product from it (CD), to distribute it and to keep the rights to re-use it (other album editions, future releases and so on).
Technology moved on? The physical medium has worn out? It’s time for the end-user to pay again for the same information. Just think how many times we already did: vinyl, audio tape, video cassette, CD, DVD, Blue-Ray, eBook etc.
Between the capitals
I want to distinguish my position from the radical-liberal approach, which says that all information and knowledge should be accessible for free (that is free of barriers and free of costs). I do think the creators should profit from their works but I am against the complete commodification of information or knowledge; and that is one hard line to draw between them.
Thinking about it in a broader term, the creator actually couldn’t have created alone. In order to create new information, a person needs to have the accountable knowledge to do so. This knowledge is what the French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu called a social capital, and among others it contains the language, imagery, costumes, education etc.
So there is actually no creation which is free of cultural implications of previous creations, which were consumed by the creator and constructed his/her social capital, which in turn was used to create the new creation.
But if society made it possible for the creator to create something, shouldn’t it be given back to society?
Many will say yes. But acknowledging that we do live in a capitalist system and the creator did invest his/her intellect, personality and labour in order to create something new, I do think a creator-rights model should support not just a return-of-investment but also a measurable profit. But hand in hand, society should also have a “return-of-investment” and profit (culturally and intellectually) from what it also contributed.
Without free and equal access to information and knowledge together with the ability to share and develop them, society will soon reach a dead-end of innovation, creativity and intellect. And it will be a sad day, when we realize that the pursuit after one certain capital (MONEY) made us sacrifice the most important capital of all, the cultural one.
This is not the place to draw a new and comprehensive model for the use and commercialization of cultural and intellectual creations but I do want to highlight some points, which should be considered when doing so:
- Variable payment: a child using a source for a school assignment, an academic for research, a musician for a new album or a corporate worker for an upcoming deal – the character and extent of their payment should be different.
- Taking other working models of profit into account: in the academic world for example, the acknowledgement for ones work is done through references in other works. Plagiarism on the other hand, is the biggest taboo. This has of course “side affects” like the impact factor and search engine visibility (for example in Google Scholar), which have a considerable financial and commercial potential for the author.
- Added value: promoting concerts with free mp3 versions of albums, releasing limited edition (special cover, signed copies etc.) of books or albums which are available online on the basic version, selling the cinema as an experience for all senses with extraordinary sound/video/3D quality – those are just a few ideas to start with.
A Tale of Two PC’s: From Postcolonialism to Postcopyrightism?
Sometimes it’s not the economy or even (local) social justice, which lead to change. In terms of copyrights, it could also be international politics and postcolonialism.
Some developing countries (or how I like to call them – non-western developed countries) are beginning to realize that the western control mechanism over information and knowledge (like copyright) only serve the existing power relations, broadening the west’s control over their economies and societies.
Lining up with western demands regarding the use of copyright materials (which also includes patents) only slows down their industrial development, causes lose of capital, and immortalizes their dependence on the west.
By denying demands of the west regarding the enforcement of copyright-models, those countries would actually be able for the first time in history to hold the west with its back to the wall, making it re-conceptualize the copyright-model in a way fitting to an age of digital and transnational information spaces, global economy and social justice.
Are we on the right way? Are we going toward an age of Post-Copyrightism? I hope so.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known” (Final Sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens 1859)