One for the Handbook (literally, for once)

“One for the Handbook” refers to a new policy idea I have thought up, and so literally wish to enter into the (virtual) Political Handbook, rather than merely blog about.

My best blogs are reactive. In fact, my best ideas are reactive, even musically, I think. There’s something reactive about every creative human impulse — the best creativity needs to respond to something. Whether it’s my taking inspiration from popular songs such as “Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows”, “The way you look tonight” and “Bring me sunshine” (Fantasy on Sunshine, a sonata for solo violin, for any who happen to be interested in my music), or simply being inspired by a long walk or pleasant day in the traditional style, human creativity is rarely, if ever, without an impulse it reacts to. The same follows with policy. Government is the most reactive concept on earth — it exists purely in reaction to, and for the intention of correcting, social problems. (Whose problems, and who the solutions benefit are, of course, up for grabs.)

James Graham on Quaequam blog! has written, every once in a while, some very interesting articles on Intellectual Property and Copyright laws. I mean interesting, for once, in a most complimentary and not at all sarcastic or euphemism-laden way, as I like the thinking very much. It sparks off my own, very embryonic, thinking on the subject. This is why I’ve linked to the blog and not a particular article (the current article is dedicated to the subject, unless you’re reading this in a couple of days, when it could be off the front page), as this isn’t reacting against anything in particular, unlike most of my “response” articles to bloggers/columnists.

James’ analysis of existing copyright legislation is a devastating critique of the recording industry at the moment and, for the most part so far as I can see, correct. Copyright legislation at the moment exists mainly to the benefit of those who exploit musical talent rather than artists themselves.

I’m a little worried about coming across so Marxist, and indeed cannot explain why I feel such greater revulsion against the concept of “selling” intellectual labour than I do selling of labour in general. Now I come to think of it, though, it may be more about the concept of selling rights of property than rights of labour. I generally don’t have a problem with artists working for larger companies, with them making a rational decision to sell their labour for a fair price (note, a fair price, not any price). I guess it’s more the idea of companies obtaining a fundamental ownership of the value of the art itself, a sense of ownership of the actual artistic endeavour being transferred, that riles me. As an artist, I obviously have a clear prejudice here, and cannot say that it is logical that I should feel less bothered by, say, the selling of conventional property that one might have produced.

Except that in many cases, property one creates cannot be argued as decisively to be your original work as art can. After all, in typing for a company as a receptionist, though doubtlessly a skilled job, the words created are of little value to me and require little skill of artistic creativity, though very different skills are required. However, in typing this blog, assuming for the moment that I am a talented writer, I could be creating something of genuinely new and irreplaceable value, a work of unique art (yeah, right!)

My point is, of course, far from black and white, and is one which would invariably travel, if it were allowed, to the debate as to what constitutes art in the first place, and where creativity has been applied as opposed to simple activity. Yet I do believe that such a distinction exists. This will doubtlessly put me at odds at many who believe that the concept of creativity is an illusion, that it disguises truth, and that it interferes with rationality, etc., etc.. I can’t argue with that — it is too fundamental a disagreement. So I can merely use this as a starting point.

I do therefore believe that a case for intellectual ownership of a work one can produce easily without creativity is far more difficult to make than for one where creativity is required, and the outcome is unique. Defining this is the problem, and I would not for one moment assume that I am capable of defining where a work becomes a work of art and ceases to be a work of mundane application of uncreative, robotic skills. Clearly creativity and innovation are not enough, as they are also applied to many business decisions and strategies, the copyrighting of which would be patent nonsense. Clearly something of unique and irreplaceable value has to be produced, but here again we come up against a minefield of definition.

Even so, difficulties of definition aside, I do think there is a clear place for intellectual copyright, and moreover, a clear case for some form of limitation on the extent to which it can be “sold” and “purchased”. Moreover, simply because definition is difficult, does not mean that these rights are not needed. I think that on a fundamental level, it is obvious that they are: I think it is obviously false to state that “music should be free” as it is to state that “information should be free”. Neither are free. No “should” will change this, both have a cost at the original level of production.

There are, of course, models to get around this. Spotify is an example. Yet I doubt that such models are capable of covering all content; what is more, even if they could I am not sure whether I like the implications for artists if they are limited to one means of distributing their content, and the potential for abuse that could follow. The advantages of a level of copyright protection are that artists may have a certain amount of personal autonomy, answering to no-one, being truly self-employed.

But, as already stated, I am in clear agreement that the current set-up favours business over artist, and is not about protection of the individual. Such a claim would be laughable. So what can be done to reverse this? I have a couple of ideas:

a) Firstly, remove the inheritance principle. Though I might feel differently about this were I a parent, I hope I would hold to my principles: no potential child of mine should be able to benefit, once they are an adult, from my work as a musician and composer. They would hold no greater intellectual right than anyone else, even if they had immeasurable artistic ability of their own.

b) For obvious reasons, an copyright expiration upon death might not be the safest of policies. Nor from a perspective of equity does it seem reasonable — there are various arguments at play here, but in terms of a “leaving something for your children if you die suddenly” question, the most equitable arrangement that I can think of off-hand would be around 20 years, a generation.

c) Things are complicated, however, by the factor of deferred success. It is possible that I may write something that, having left the undiscerning public cold for 20 years, suddenly becomes very popular. In which case, I am shafted if the limit is inflexible. I therefore suggest that the initial limit be a simple one on what your work can earn to an unlimited extent, but an additional time limit exists as to what your work can earn in total.

This could work two ways: it could be “on top” of whatever your work earns in the first 20 years, or it could be including the first 20 years of earnings. The latter concept would be more socialist in concept, setting a more “absolute” price on what a work of art should earn, for this reason, I am tempted to disown it, though the former concept also does this to an extent. Either way, it could serve a severe limitation upon the ability of artists or companies to exploit a popular work to reap huge rewards through limiting distribution. There would have to be an absolute limit, perhaps something like 75 years, upon which any work is guaranteed to enter public domain.

d) I must confess to be unaware of the law surrounding the extent to which the copyright of a work can be “sold on”, so here I enter the area of speculation. I believe fundamentally that the extent one can sell or purchase copyright should be limited to so protect the original producer, or that the limit of 20 years should be binding upon anyone who is benefiting from “purchased” copyright, and either revert back to the producer afterward, or, if they are dead, become public domain.

This is all very initial. I am unaware of many very important facts to this debate, and this serves just as much as an attempt to define some of my thinking as it does any detailed policy argument from me. However, I hope it proves to be a constructive addition to the debate.


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