My Take on “A Copyright Story”

           My last post, Copyright From an Artist’s Perspective was inspired by a fantastic blog entry I had read about a month ago. I came across an article by an artist on the subject of copyright, and while it does fall into some of the same old traps of mixing up moral, legal and economic realities, it also introduces some great new ideas. I knew it was a good entry because it made me sit, and think, and question many of my own preconceptions. Although my opinion hasn’t changed, anything that shakes me like that got to have some kind of power, and his message should be shared.
           I threw together a quick post for my tumblr account, to help me clear my head and sort my thoughts. This article builds upon that one.

           In the copyright debate, I have found the first article from ‘the other side’ that I think actually gets some things right. Jason Robert Brown had an excellent blog entry titled “FIGHTING WITH TEENAGERS: A COPYRIGHT STORY”.
(the follow-up post might be even better, but I’m not going to get into any of those ideas right here.)

           So, I’ll begin by telling the story of what happened. Mr. Brown found a bunch of his content on a file-sharing site. His work was being pirated. Rather than suing his fans (which is very stupid) he created an account on a file sharing site, identified the people who were distributing his content, and he very politely asked them to stop. He went though everyone offering up his content, and on an individual basis, he sent them a message asking them to stop. He was polite and professional about it (which is smart). I think it’s really cool of him to go and do this himself, and I think it was very good of him to explain that he is not ok with his content being shared like that, and many people stopped right away. He made a convincing moral argument, and most people listened. Most people. Not everyone.

           The meat of the blog entry is a very good exchange between Jason Robert Brown and a teenage girl who quite obviously gets her information from the anti-strong copyright perspective. She has obviously read up on the issue quite a bit, and their exchange is very much worth reading. A teenager makes a number of solid arguments, and she holds her own; while Brown, an experienced adult, actually listens to what she has to say, treats her with respect, and argues back. It’s a wonderful exchange. The comments section is long, and many more excellent points are brought up, and Brown addressed nearly every comment in a thoughtful way.

           I agree very strongly with his argument that artists should have a choice whether their work is distributed freely or not. But it’s the whole is vs. ought argument. Sure, you ought to be able to choose what is done with your work, but when that content is digital, well, good luck with that. How do you police the distribution of digital content without massive privacy violations? You would have to devise a system that is essentially breaking the internet as we know it, and forcing strict restrictions on all connected technologies, then rebuilding everything from the ground up. So yes, you ought to have that choice, but realistically, you don’t. It’s out there, it’s free, and it is naive to think otherwise.

           Since artists don’t have a choice in the matter, a question arises, “is trying to slow down the flow of digitized creative content the right choice for an artist to make?”

           In 2006, Tim O’Reilly of the O’Reilly publishing company posted some of his thoughts on piracy up on his blog. All of his points are worth giving some serious consideration, but the first one is the most powerful. “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.” When people are pirating your work, that means that they know about your work, they know about you, and they want it. They want what you make. They want what you do. Demand can be monetized. Obscurity, on the other hand, cannot be monetized. Imagine how bad it must feel if no one, not even a single person wants your work, even if they can get it for free.
           “It’s very hard to monetise fame, but impossible to monetise obscurity” Cory Doctorow has made this point the foundation of his increasingly successful career. He has found success by letting people download his books for free on his own website, while also giving them the option to buy copies, as well. Obviously, his approach won’t work for everyone. And his name seems like the only one mentioned in this context, so it is quite possible that his success could be seen as the exception that proves the rule. Also, as he has himself admitted, if more people experiment with free, the beneficial effects will likely be diluted.
           While Doctorow’s name may be the first name to come up in your search results as an example of artists using free to increase sales, he isn’t the only one to do so. Author Paulo Coelho also had some luck with free, after uploading the Russian translation to a file sharing site, his sales climbed from about a thousand per year to a million per year.
           O’Reilly also suggests another way of thinking about Piracy, as “progressive taxation.” Emerging artists need to get their name out there, and piracy is huge benefit during this stage of the career. Getting songs into people’s ipods, or PDFs on their desktops is a primary concern. Established artists, on the other hand, don’t struggle with the same obscurity issues, and for them piracy represents lost sales. Piracy doesn’t necessarily threaten business and publishing, it threatens established businesses and established publishers.

           This is all well and good, and Brown address all this; some artists want to use free to advertise their work, but he doesn’t, and artists should have that choice. Again, I agree with his moral argument. Artists should be able to make that choice, but they don’t.
           Remember how his great moral argument convinced most people to stop distributing his content, and even though most people listened, well, some didn’t. They are still offering those digital files, and that means that anyone can still get his content. Digital files are infinitely reproducible, so even if he were able to convince every single person on Earth, except one, then everyone still has access to it. It only takes one single person to offer up the file for the whole world to still have access to it.

           The question remains: when your work is already out there, when it’s already free, when people who want to infringe, and are able to infringe, there is nothing you can do to stop it. As an artist, you still want to get paid for your work, and you should get paid for it. So, what is the right course of action?

           If you have even the slightest interest in copyright, no mater which side you take on the issue, it is very well worth reading this blog entry.

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Kyle Clements

Kyle Clements is a Toronto-based artist and nerd. During his thesis at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kyle began working on his Urban Landscapes series, a body of work that aims to capture the energy and excitement of life in the fast-paced urban environment. After graduating from OCAD in 2006, Kyle spent a year living in Asia to gather source material and experience in a different kind or urban environment. His work is vibrant and colourful. Whether painting the harsh Northern landscape, or capturing the overwhelming buzz of life in the city, his acrylic paintings hover between representation and abstraction.