DIGITAL technology has created two opposing cultures. One where copyright rules are enforced by a phalanx of lawyers with no regard for artistic intent or respect for legitimate creativity, and another — in our homes, studios and offices — where ignoring copyright has become open slather. Neither serves artists or creators well.
In the professional world, many have experienced the madness of the official system. I discovered recently that the cost of clearing a three-second sample for a TV show — even with the artist’s explicit consent — can exceed the cost of flying to the other side of the world and back. Academics fear media companies that plant people in lectures to report copyright “violations” for showing film clips in educational contexts.
Yet outside the professional world, the kids are effectively ignoring copyright. The internet has become a global mix tape, an infinite jukebox and a video-on-demand service on a massive scale, and a lot of the time people aren’t paying for it. At times, it is copyright that actually prevents people from paying. “Illegal” downloads have become commonplace, not least because of the desire to get hold of TV shows, films or music that — usually for copyright reasons — aren’t even being sold in the formats or into the countries in which people wish to view them.
This is where Creative Commons comes in. Artists and academics internationally are working to reform copyright law and create a system that puts control back in the hands of the artists, not the lawyers, corporations, administrators and speculators who have created a minefield of copyright complexities.
Under a Creative Commons licence, musicians, for example, can allow others to distribute their music free of charge, or they can allow their work to be quoted in a new work or republished on any website. It allows original creators to share their work if they want to, and allows other people to spread the word. It has been welcomed by many artists but fiercely resisted by the companies making their profits from the control they hold over copyrights and distribution.
Creative Commons founder Professor Lawrence Lessig, of Stanford University, in Australia last week for a conference on copyright futures, points out that the larger crisis of copyright is not about what people consume but how they create. He told ABC radio this week that copyright law “criminalises behaviour that is creative behaviour … people remixing or making content, making new content which is just regulated under the existing law in a way that renders it illegal. And there’s no reason for the law to do that, it’s just a byproduct of it being an archaic law applied to digital technologies and we should be changing it so that we can be encouraging and teaching our kids how to use this technology legally.”
Computers aren’t cutting-edge creative tools these days; they’re the new folk art. Households are far more likely to have a computer than any other creative tool, with the possible exception of the pencil. In the 21st century, computers are a more familiar means of expression than guitars or easels.
On YouTube or MySpace or any one of a thousand other websites, young Australians — like their counterparts all around the world — are making their own videos, songs, animations and images. Often they do so using other works as their raw materials: making a new video clip to a favourite song; combining or recaptioning images; cutting together scenes from existing movies to make a new one; or recording themselves singing or dancing to music they love. None of this is the domain of pirates or profiteers. It is the natural extension of curiosity and creativity meeting digital tools. Yet it is almost always illegal.
Creative Commons is a step in the right direction but it is actually a systemic problem. Today’s sampling culture is nothing new. Artists have been quoting each other for as long as there has been storytelling. We are just the first generation to criminalise it. It’s time to make sensible legal distinctions between ripping off someone’s work and the legitimate right to quote, be inspired by and comment on the sounds and texts and images saturating our lives.
Originally published in The Age.
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