Not well fitted

An interesting discussion took place a little while back on the Big Ideas program on Radio National. Paul Barclay spoke with musician Lindy Morrison (formerly of the Go-Betweens) and writer Phillipa McGuinness about the future of copyright in the digital era. The discussion, not unreasonably, circled around the challenges facing musicians and other creative professionals in an environment where downloading, copying, and streaming digital files take precedence over the purchase or borrowing of physical artefacts.

As Barclay noted, one in three adults and half of 18–24-year-old Australians are actively engaged in downloading movies, music, and, yes, even books (sometimes).  Is it possible to protect the intellectual property of the creators of these works?  And if not, what does that mean for these industries?

These are enormous questions and McGuinness and Morrison both articulated strong and impassioned arguments that copyright is not the preserve of faceless corporations or industry bodies and that deliberate copying of content represents actual pain to real people and a danger to industries already financially constrained. I won’t argue their points, which were fair and reasonable, but I did notice that the discussion neatly sidestepped a couple of major problems with our basic assumptions of copyright, its purpose and benefits.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have form here. I did take part in a public debate called ‘Copyright is Dead, Long Live the Pirates’. And, although I didn’t entirely agree with the provocative title, I was on the affirmative team.

Rather than rely on the sensationalism of yet another premature declaration of death, let's put it this way:

Copyright as a concept is not well fitted for the digital world.

I know, it's not as catchy.

Regardless of how it was initially conceived and for whom it was initially intended to benefit, modern copyright has evolved into a mechanism intended to allow authors to benefit from original works by granting them control over it for a period of time. It means that creators of an original work should expect fair compensation and acknowledgement when their work is bought and sold, adapted, referenced, and so on.

I have no problem with that.

But although copyright is about more than a simple set of rules governing the ability to make copies of a given work, to my mind, the fundamental notion of the copy is central to its disruption at the hands of digital media.

Copyright was created with the medium of print in mind. To create a print copy of an existing work takes dedication, resources, time, and money. Copyright is an effective system in the physical world because, for an audience, the path of least resistance to obtaining a creative work is to buy it (or borrow it, which opens a whole different can of worms). Even with modern home scanning and printing technology, no one wants to go through the interminable process of making their own copy of anything in print. The payoff is not worth the effort, not when the local bookshop has good coffee and Amazon has a buy-it-now button. Under a system predicated on physical objects, readers buy books and some of that money reaches writers. It’s anything but perfect, but broadly speaking it kind of works.

Things are very different in the networked world of ones and zeros. The ability to make perfect copies of information is a basic function of computers. One of the reasons we all switched from vinyl to CDs was because digital music was sold to us as the perfect copy, the perfect reproduction of the sounds made in the studio. And it’s not just fidelity that makes digital copying so attractive; it’s also ease of use. So easy in fact that we’re no longer conscious of the volume of information we copy in any given day. The act of viewing information transmitted through the internet results in a bloom of copies that proliferate through the world. Not only that, we expect our content to be available on all our devices simultaneously. In the digital environment, making a copy of any given set of data is not just easy; it’s as natural as taking a breath.

This, for me at least, is the essence of copyright’s digital disruption. In the digital world, making a copy has become the path of least resistance. The copyright system simply cannot conceive of this reality and instead attempts to shoehorn digital content into behaving more like physical artefacts in order to fit more neatly. This is why we get ‘features’ like geoblocking and DRM that treat the audience as criminals first and readers second.

Copyright should be assumed to benefit artists, but all too often we see artists pushed aside in favour of other beneficiaries.

An extraordinary absence from the Big Ideas discussion was the impossibly sad case of Men at Work’s ‘Down Under’ and ‘Kookaburra’. Briefly, the 80s hit was found to have plagiarised the beloved 1932 song by Marion Sinclair, a court decision that many have said contributed to the death of Greg Ham, one of the artists involved.

Without getting too bogged down in the specifics of the case, it does prompt the question: who benefits when an artist’s copyright continues for fifty or seventy years after their death?

Protecting artists is one thing, but protecting ‘rights holders’ who bought the copyright from the estate of the dead artist seems to be something else entirely. Is this what copyright should be about?

Sadly, I don’t have solutions to these or to other problems surrounding copyright in contemporary Australia. But I do feel strongly that our treatment of intellectual property should be based around respect first for both artists and audience. The wishes of any other party should come a distant third.

if:book’s major project this year, Rumours of My Death, specifically digs through forgotten corners of Australia’s Public Domain to find authors and works that can continue inspire in 2015. The project asks three contemporary authors (myself included) to ‘collaborate’ with another writer’s work drawn from the Public Domain to create a new contemporary ‘remix’, an entirely new work that draws on its source material.

The Public Domain contains creative work that we all own; it is a gift from the artist to future generations and is the best reason I know of to continue making creative works in the hope that it will be accessible and valued (in ways that don’t have dollar signs attached).

My team won that debate, by the way.

Listen to the RN Discussion.

Read about Rumours of My Death.