Copy Wars: Episode 2 – How Copyright Is Failing Artists


Saens Otem is starving. He’s a playwright, which pays well for a very few and not at all for the vast majority. This has always been the condition of artists as well as people who create things that you really can’t call art. Popular genres like “young monsters in love” and “sleuthing with torture,” are part of a vast swath of the economy know as disposable entertainment or airport reading. The same goes for drama in the metamodern world. Theaters are filled with goofy dinner mysteries, nude people telling jokes, and interactive improvisation. None of these works could or should be called art.

Copyright was supposed to help. Hans Christian Anderson is the prototype of the world famous writer who was destitute because those selling his books kept all the money. Charles Dickens, who famously shunned Andersen after the latter spent too many days crashed on his couch eating his food, was extremely well off by Andersen’s standards, but keenly felt the sting of others selling his writings without paying him. For the rest of his life, Dickens fought copyright protection across borders to prevent American publishers from printing his books without paying him.


What does copyright do?

Saens has filed for a copyright for each of his plays. An online registration costs $35 and doesn’t really do anything unless he is prepared to file a lawsuit. The costs of the lawsuit probably outweigh any financial benefit he could secure unless the defendant has been wildly successful. In that case, the defendant is probably a publisher or management company with the resources to successfully defend itself in court. In a sense, Saens would be better off if someone stole his story. Then he could sue and share some of the profits. Many Hollywood productions include “Challenges” as a budget line item, meaning enough money set aside to settle out of court for all the starving artists who will sue to claim the movie as their own idea. There really isn’t room in Hollywood for many original ideas so the challenges are inevitable. The limited variables in virtually indistinguishable Hollywood scripts, along with the closing of the American mind, has led to fewer ideas and more disputes over them. “Synopsis: Boy meets girl, boy and girl fight aliens.” Yes, that is probably under copyright protection.

File sharing

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against file sharing individuals under copyright laws. According to Cary Sherman, RIAA president:

“Nobody likes playing the heavy and having to resort to litigation. But when your product is being regularly stolen, there comes a time when you have to take appropriate action. We simply cannot allow online piracy to continue destroying the livelihoods of artists, musicians, songwriters, retailers, and everyone in the music industry.”

Their argument was that filesharing was depriving artists of compensation for their work. To be fair, RIAA wasn’t really interested in saving starving artists but defending profit erosion. In 2003, RIAA sent out around 1,500 subpoenas to get the names and addresses of individuals sharing music online from their Internet Service Providers.

Now, ten years later, music companies have been pursuing litigation on another front – suing artists for using the work of other artists. This has devastated the sampling culture for commercial recordings and driven it underground. Just last week, RZA countersued after JVC withheld $50,000 of royalties because he used a sample from one of the artists that JVC owns. JVC is the parent company of Teichiku that is in the business of buying up copyrights from artists and suing as a way of earning income. In fact, LRS (litigation as revenue source) has been successfully pursued by many corporations.

A world without copyright

For Saens, copyright is irrelevant because he’s not famous enough for anyone to care about him, except maybe RIAA. To him, copyright is only a tool for large companies to become even larger while individual artists are prevented from sharing or commenting on their cultural environment. The alternatives to copyright laws are everywhere, from slight modifications like Creative Commons to complete eradication like the usufruct model proposed by Joost Smiers and Marieke van Schijendel in “Imagine there is no copyright”.

What would the world look like without copyright? Ask Psy, aka Park Jae-sang, the creator of the infectious and ubiquitous Gangnam Style. The song is a ridicule of posh lifestyle wannabes that has been embraced by those being ridiculed, just as Pink Floyd’s “Money” was exactly 40 years ago.

Glyn Moody and Mike Masnick at Techdirt summed up how Psy’s indifference to copyright infringement turned him into a cultural icon. (And I hope those these guys don’t sue me.)

On the commentary and remix of Gangnam Style, Masnick wrote:

I don’t know if Psy or his label has actually done anything explicit to say that he’s “waived” his copyright on Gangnam Style, but it is clear that he’s been perfectly happy to have tons of folks make their own versions, edit the video and much much more. Each one of those things only seems to drive much more attention to the original, which only helps Psy out even more.”

Moody followed up with:

This is yet another great example of how artists can give away copies of their music and videos to build their reputations and then earn significant sums by selling associated scarcities — in this case, appearances in TV commercials. Now, not every musician may want to take that route, but there are plenty of other ways of exploiting global successes like Gangnam Style — none of which requires copyright to be enforced.”

The remix

Saens can’t count on the YouTube virality to make his name as a playwright, but the end of copyright would be a boon to him. The freedom to comment on existing culture through his plays without frightening off potential financial backers who are rightfully terrified of copyright infringement lawsuits would allow his plays to come up from underground. Saens supports controversial mixologist Kirby Ferguson’s argument that Everything Is a Remix. However, until there is legal protection for this argument, Saens will return to work on another goofy and harmless dinner mystery, which somehow escapes copyright infringement lawsuits by commenting on cultural themes that are no longer relevant.

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