Against Copyright

The issue of music piracy on the Internet has reared its head again, with the entertainment industry blaming the likes of Napster, AudioGalaxy and Kazaa for the decline in CD sales. This should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they are quick to blame piracy for any and all ills. Witness the MPAA website, which says: “One real-world example of piracy’s devastating impact on the legitimate marketplace is with the 1999 release of the film Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. Pirate copies of the film (created by using camcorders in US theaters) flooded the Asian marketplace while the film was still in U.S. theatrical distribution. When the film opened legitimately in Asian theaters, attendance was far below expectations.” Er, could this perhaps be because it sucked? I should also point out that the film still grossed over $920m worldwide, the majority of it outside North America. As the original Star Wars took barely 1/3 of its money overseas, it thus hardly seems in need of protection.

With regard to music, the actual evidence – largely ignored by the mainstream media for obvious reasons – appears to be that people who use file-sharing networks are twice as likely to spend more on music as they are to spend less. But regardless, I imagine few people feel particular sadness for the record companies; those with long memories will remember them saying when CDs arrived, that they would drop prices once the new medium caught on. Their failure to do so, preferring to price-gouge consumers mercilessly, is certainly one of the direct causes of any decline in sales.

Ilsa Spears vs. Scissorhands Jackson

They are also guilty of force-feeding the market with garbage, for which it certainly isn’t worth paying $14.99, and up – indeed, if local phone calls here weren’t free, neither would it be worth the cost of downloading. I just don’t care about an industry for whom Britney Spears and N*Sync (anyone else praying for a rerun of the Challenger disaster?) are the cutting edge, and where hype and image are more important than substance and talent. Keep cramming crap down anyone’s throat, and they will eventually gag, throw up and refuse to eat any more, no matter how good you tell them it is.

So what if Eminem loses a million sales of his new CD? While his previous LP was amusing enough, all he now seems to offer is whines about how screwed up he is (it’s all his parents’ fault, naturally) and how everyone hates him. Mr. Enema badly needs to Get Over Himself. Who cares if the executives at his record company have to cut back on their coke habit?

The entertainment industry already hated the Internet, largely because it renders them redundant. You need $20m to start a radio station, $200m for a newspaper and $2000m for a network TV station. But any idiot can start up a website (even me!), and use it to promote and distribute their book, CD, film, or whatever. It’s a level playing-field, and that infuriates and threatens media cartels. There’s no denying that the vast majority of musicians, who are at the bottom of the pyramid, benefit from the Internet and the exposure it permits. Those at the top are the only losers, and I would certainly say they deserve as little sympathy as the baseball players who threatened to strike while earning an average $2.4m per year.

The concept of copyright, as currently applied, no longer has any resonance for me. I can see why creators of work should be entitled to some protection during their lifetime, though no-one has a “right” to get paid for their art, any more than I have a “right” to get paid for writing these words. However, the principle has been utterly corrupted by the likes of Disney and the others who are largely responsible for the (soon-to-be-challenged) Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which packed another couple of decades onto the time before material become public domain – thereby saving Mickey Mouse from becoming fair game for one and all. This is merely the latest in a series of corporate land-grabs, which have extended the period of copyright from 14 years to over a century.

Jack bravely defends Hollywood
from the public domain

What moral justification is offered for this? Here’s Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America – conspiracy theorists might care to note that Valenti was in JFK’s 1963 Dallas motorcade, and within hours of the assassination, became the first special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson. Hmmm. In testimony to Congress, he said: “The core copyright industries, movies, TV programs, home video, books, musical recordings and computer software…gather in some $45 billion in revenues abroad, and has grown its employment at a rate of four times faster than the annual rate of growth of the overall U.S. economy. Whatever shrinks that massive asset is NOT in America’s interests… The case for copyright term extension is that simple.

Yes, it begins and ends with nothing more than bare-faced greed. We want to make more money, so you will change the law to let us do so. You don’t think the media companies’ $6.5m in political contributions had anything to do with the bill getting passed, do you? I’m sure it’s mere coincidence that, of the 13 sponsors of the original bill in the House of Representatives, ten took money from Disney. Indeed, the very same day Senator Lott of Mississippi signed on as a co-sponsor, his campaign committee received a Disney check for $1,000.

It is double ironic that it’s Mickey’s hands which are grasping, given how many Disney films are based on public domain works – or in the case of The Jungle Book, came out one year after author Rudyard Kipling’s copyright expired. The laws which they lobbied to pass, would have prevented them from making such films freely, and as it currently stands, copyright doesn’t protect, it suppresses. It’s acknowledged that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is based on Arthur Brooke’s poem Romeus and Juliet/ This was written less than 30 years previously and would, under existing law (the creator’s life, plus 70 years), have led to Will being smacked with a plagiarism suit faster than you can say, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Readers with long memories may remember the “Home Taping is Killing Music” campaign begun by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry in 1978. [On the nostalgia front, there was also the bizarre and highly amusing British Video Association claim in the following decade that video piracy financed terrorism. As yet, the MPAA have yet to claim that downloading Rush Hour 2 off the net is aiding Bin Laden, but after the “Drugs = Terrorism” adverts – which conveniently forgot the CIA funding pumped into Afghanistan when they were fighting Commies rather than us – it can surely only be a matter of time. (2010 update: And so it proved) Anyway, where was I…? Oh, yes…]

Funnily enough, home taping didn’t kill music: it survived, just as it’ll survive the Internet. In even the worst case scenario – the absolute and final death of the music industry – musicians would have to go back to playing live, as they did for the great majority of recorded history. They will have no option but to succeed or fail on their talent, rather than how many times MTV plays their video. It’s hard to see why anyone could realistically view this as a tragedy.