James Steventon Artist | Writer | Runner

Intellectual Property or Shared Cultural Heritage?

Have you heard the one about Twitter replacing tweeted jokes with takedown requests for alleged copyright infringement on behalf of the joke ‘owners’? While in itself laughable, this does point to a wider concern about whether the current copyright laws are fit for purpose in a culturally rich and egalitarian society.

New-media artist and curator Antonio Roberts describes how “messed up” the copyright system is. “When it falls on you it falls hard. Copyright is so complicated it is easily violated – it just takes someone with a lot of money to ruin us.”

Currently artist in residence at University of Birmingham where he is researching remix culture and copyright, Roberts is what the American writer and thinker Marc Prensky would describe as a digital native: raised in a digital, media-saturated – and for Roberts – open source world.

“When you can share something so quickly on the Internet, how do you own something?” ponders Roberts. “When you actually view a website, you’re copying everything that you are viewing. It’s not like you are just looking at it. It’s downloading to your computer – that is copying. So technically you’re committing a crime every time you go to a website.”

Channel 4 Economics editor Paul Mason might view these digital infringements as the inevitable consequences of the beginnings of post-capitalism. As we have moved to a more individualistic culture the Internet has simultaneously created the biggest community ever.

As Mason observes: “If a free market economy plus intellectual property leads to the ‘underutilisation of information’, then an economy based on the full utilisation of information cannot tolerate the free market or absolute intellectual property rights.” But an instantly connected world means that information is abundant and new forms of ownership are emerging.

A sharing economy is also an interest of sonic visual artist and DJ, David Littler. Littler traces this interest back to “early days of doing mix tapes – giving it away or selling it … the whole culture that grew around that … particularly rave culture, was central to that dissemination of other people’s music that enabled music to get out and be heard by other people”.

As a creator as well as a consumer of culture, Littler recognises the potential benefits of a copyright system to an individual. “The basis of copyright law is to encourage creativity and ownership. That is its premise. But it feels like we’ve come to a point where it’s gone over the edge and somehow we have to get back to the original belief system that underpinned copyright as a way of stopping monopolies.”

Echoing the thoughts of Tony Benn (recently sampled in DJ Sprinkles and Mark Fell’s Fresh Insights EP), Littler notes: “We’ve gone from breaking monopoly to freedom of expression back to monopoly again. I’m sure we’ve been on this loop many times in our history”.

The French advocacy group La Quadrature Du Net, who exist to promote the digital rights and freedoms of citizens, take the position that “it is impossible to effectively control the flow of information in the digital age by the law and the technology without harming public freedoms, and damaging economic and social development”. Rather than repeating this loop again, is it possible to square the circle and time to look towards new models?

Among those open to this discussion is the Green Party, who recently began a review of its copyright policy by taking the unusual step of inviting representatives of the creative sector, such as writers, artists and musicians, to its annual conference for consultation. That the emerging policy proposal was then criticised by a number of prominent artists and writers is demonstrative of the complicated ground we find ourselves on.

Specifically, much of what Littler describes as a “hoo-ha” centred on the proposal of shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years after death, as opposed to the current 70 years.

Artist and Green Party member Melanie Cutler offers some clarity. “The ones who are shouting about it have had their work published and are benefiting from it. But there are many more creators, writers and musicians who will never benefit from copyright but they fight to preserve their right to it in principle just in case they do.” This is what Littler describes as “the fear of economic loss rather than any actual loss”.

Cutler is also keen that this specific item is not taken in isolation, where in fact it is preceded by the proposed Citizen’s Income, “which will allow many more people to participate in cultural creation”, as every adult in Britain would be paid a basic income regardless of wealth or earnings (and largely paid for via its administrative efficiency). Echoing the “Green value of greater sharing”, Cutler adds: “As an individual I reserve the right to earn an income and if you want to see creatives in this country thrive they need money – but where that comes from is another question. I would like to see more work shared but for creative people to climb out of poverty we need to improve their standard of living.”

Where copyright law is self evidently distorted by an uneven distribution of wealth Roberts ponders: “Does wealth go above what we’re trying to do in creating stuff and trying to share it?”

In a society where all men are created equal, intellect may not be viewed as property but a shared cultural heritage. To which Cutler points to the irony of the case of the Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr versus CBS, disputing the public domain copyright status of the text of King’s famous speech.

Littler reflects on a quote by John Cage. “Our poetry now is the realisation that we possess nothing. Anything therefore is a delight (since we do not possess it) and thus need not fear its loss. We need not destroy the past; it is gone. At any moment it might reappear and seem to be and be the present. Would it be repetition? Only if we thought we owned it, but since we don’t, it is free and so are we.”


James Steventon Artist | Writer | Runner

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