OK, so Vince Cable announces a few changes to copyright law. Small beer for most of us, for whom the only benefit is that we’ll be off the hook when we buy music and copy it for our own use. Not much in it for inventors.
Except that Vince’s announcement has triggered yet more debate about copyright itself. That is relevant to inventors, as it touches on the balance between rewarding creators of ideas and works, and rewarding others who want to exploit those same ideas and works.
Rather more clearly than in arguments about patents, there are two distinct sides in the copyright debate: those who own rights and derive income from them, versus those who don’t.
The latter usually claim that in a digital age, over-generous copyright terms stifle creativity. For example, here’s Shane Richmond, writing in the Daily Telegraph:
...as it stands, [the copyright regime is] stifling the very creativity and innovation that it’s meant to protect.
As it stands, the true purpose of copyright has been subverted. In fact, it’s now an active disincentive to create.
Copyright must return to being a law that is about the incentive to create.
There tends to be a large Groundhog Day element to these claims. They come up again and again but never detail exactly how copyright stifles creativity and innovation.
Shane Richmond doesn’t have much in the way of answers either. He trots out the chestnut about record companies not investing in new acts when they hold lucrative rights to back catalogues, but that argument is too full of holes ever to hold water. Essentially, it has little to do with creativity; it’s to do with commercial judgement, which is a very different thing. (And we must whisper it, but maybe the new acts are crap.)
Let’s fire a big one off here. The whole point of creativity and innovation is that it doesn’t accept the given. It wants to do things differently. Solve problems. Get round obstacles. Rise above hardship. Make its own, distinctive mark.
Anyone genuinely creative isn’t going to be held up by someone else’s creativity. Copyright could last a thousand years – so what? No artist or innovator is ever going to say: ‘Looks like we’re at the end of the road here. Nowhere to go but home. Damn this copyright!’
So why do so many people have such a problem with copyright? To supply his own answer, Shane Richmond marches us in the direction of conspiracy theory:
Even as far back as the 18th century, publishers knew that arguing for a legal monopoly for their products was unlikely to succeed. So they framed the argument around the artists and got what they wanted. Today’s arguments, whether in favour of copyright extensions or against “piracy”, are always couched in the same terms: it’s about protecting artists and creators.
And here’s the red meat, it seems. Copyright was never about protecting artists and creators. Any apparent benefit to them is a smoke-screen. Copyright is about making big companies richer and more monopolistic. In which case, drastically shortening the period of protection does the world a good turn by freeing up other businesses to operate. It’s the digital age equivalent of storming the Bastille.
As specious arguments go, that takes some beating. By suggesting that copyright was never about artists and innovators, it’s easier to justify reducing their protection.
Sadly, squeezing artists, creatives and inventors out of the picture seems to be second nature for many commentators on IP. It’s as though they believe IP is a game that small fry shouldn’t be allowed to play. No matter how pious they get about creativity, what they’re much more interested in is the freedom of more businesses to give them more of whatever self-indulgences they want – and cheaply, please.
That’s why there is little enthusiasm for cracking down on piracy and illegal file-sharing, both of which are real and significant disincentives to creativity. But to get muscular about them will (so the theory goes) harm the precious business models that supply our cravings. And of course if Google, Apple et al are ever prevented from making stratospheric profits on our behalf, the sky will fall in.
In the current climate, that seems to matter far more than protecting the rights of individuals. So long live copyright just the way it is. It’s irrelevant to creativity but it’s far from irrelevant to creators and innovators.
Posted by Graham Barker