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Why Creativity Needs Shorter Copyright Terms

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
6th November 2009


Republished from Glyn Moody the tireless advocate of openness:

“In response to a tweet of mine about shortening copyright to stimulate creativity, someone questioned the logic. It’s an important point, so it seems useful to do some thinking out loud on the subject.

First, I should probably address the question of whether *longer* copyright stimulates creativity. The basic argument seems to be that longer copyright terms mean greater incentives, which means greater creativity. But does anyone seriously think about the fact that their creations will still be in copyright 69 years after their death? It won’t do them any good, and probably won’t do their descendants much good either, since the income at this point is generally close to zero.

Indeed, speaking as an author, I know that practically all my income from writing comes within the first couple of years; after that, it’s dribs and drabs. If my copyright were cut down to even five years, it would make only a marginal difference to my total remuneration.

Now, clearly I’m not JK Rowling, but the point is, neither are 99.99999% of authors: I know from talking to other run-of-the mill writers that the same holds for them, too. So in practical terms, reducing the copyright term would have little effect on the money that most creators earned as result.

But let’s look at the main part of my claim: that reducing copyright’s term would encourage creativity. This is based on the rough syllogism that all artists draw on their predecessors in some way; making more prior creativity available would allow more artists to draw on it in more ways; and so this would increase overall creativity.

For the first assertion, look at history. Painters once began by mixing paints in another artist’s studio, then drawing unimportant bits in his (usually his) works, learning how to emulate his style. Then they gradually painted more important bits in the style of that artist, often doing the low-cost jobs or rush jobs that he didn’t have time or inclination to execute. Then, one day, that apprentice would set up on his (usually his) own, building on all the tricks and techniques he had learned from his master, but gradually evolving his own style.

Today, would-be artists tend not to become apprentices in the same way. Instead, they typically go to art school, where they learn to *copy* the masters in order to learn their techniques. Often you see them doing this in art galleries, as they strive to reproduce the exact same effect in their own copy. It teaches them the basics of painting that they can then build on in their own work.

In music, something very similar happens: journeyman composers write pieces in the style of the acknowledged masters, often copying their themes and structure very closely. This is true even for extreme geniuses. For example, in order to learn how to write in the new early classical style, the eight-year-old Mozart arranged three piano sonatas from J C Bach’s Op. 5 as keyboard concertos.

Mozart also “borrowed” entire themes – most famously in the overture to The Magic Flute, where he takes a simple tune from a piano sonata by Clementi, and transforms it. Some composers did this on a regular basis. Handel, in particular, was quite unscrupulous in taking themes from fellow composers, and turning them into other, rather better, works. Moreover, the widely-used form of musical variations is based generally on taking a well-known theme and subjecting it to various transformations.

That was in the past, when art was an analogue artefact. Copying took place through trying to reproduce an artistic effect, or by borrowing musical themes etc. Today, in the digital age, copying is not such an incidental act, but central to how we use computers. When we access something online, we copy it to our computers (even audio streaming has to be assembled into copies of small chunks of sound before we can hear it).

Digital plasticity – the ability to compute with any content – makes the clumsy copying and learning processes of the past trivially easy. A child can take a digital image of a work of art and cut and paste elements of it into his or her own work; anyone can sample music, distort it and mix it with their own; texts can be excerpted and juxtaposed with others drawn from very diverse backgrounds to create mosaics of meaning.

All these amazingly rich and innovative things are now very easy to do practically, but the possibilities of doing so are stymied by laws that were drawn up for an analogue age. Those laws were not designed to forbid artists from learning from existing creations, but to stop booksellers producing unauthorised copies – a totally different issue. The idea of using just part of a work was not really a concern. But it is today, when the cut and paste metaphor is central to the digital world. That is why we need to reduce copyright to the bare minimum, so that the legal obstacles to creating in this new, inherently digital way, are removed.

If we don’t, one of two things will happen. Either we will fail to realise the full creative potential of computing, or else the younger generation of artists will simply ignore the law. Either is clearly unsatisfactory. What is needed is a copyright regime that is balanced. That is far from being the case today. As the media industry (sic) ratchets up copyright terms again and again, creation has become subservient to the corporation, and the creators are cut off from their past – and hence future.”

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