Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Cory Doctorow's "The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow": Creativity vs. copyright, or what hath Warhol wrought?

Andy, seriously clowning around

These days it is difficult to see an advertisement, surf the web, listen to pop music or watch any media without some form of artistic "appropriation." Whether it's called sampling or theft or even genius, the intentional use and layering of others' ideas is a common thread to our shared culture.

In the 1960s Andy Warhol's appropriation of Brillo boxes and Campbell's soup cans as subjects for art elevated America's advertising to a level of consideration that shocked some and amused others. He was the first to suggest that the nation's disposable post-war culture was something more about form than function, that America was a nation filled with everyday objects fit equally for artistic appreciation as to throw away.

It was the ultimate extension of the old saying about one man's trash -- and, for many, a new gloss on the idea of kitsch. The fact that his iconic and appropriated images continue to contain an appraised value as well as artistic worth -- although some would argue otherwise -- is, at bottom, the economic heart of current discussions about internet rights, copyright, musical sampling, and intellectual property. Cory Doctorow takes up the argument in his essay The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow that there is a fundamental disparity between proposed changes in copyright law and the creative freedom of the artist with 21st century tools.

The past, in this case, seems no guide to the future: recent print copyright changes that extend legal ownership to 75 years and beyond clash with other media decisions: the music industry is just facing up to a 1976 law that reverts ownership rights to songwriters after 35 years -- in time for the age of digital music on the internet, unforeseen all those years ago.

The projected loss of corporate revenue is one factor in the current debate, but the rights of the individual are an even more important one. The ultimate legal argument about intellectual property, of course, will hinge on financial issues: can corporate entities make a profit in the uncharted future? The artist's right to expression, if it's even considered, will pose a thornier path.

Here's an excerpt from Doctorow's essay, condensed from his address to the 2010 World Science Fiction Convention, which is available both in print and -- tellingly -- available as a free download. As Doctorow points out, the decision is one in which -- perhaps for the first time -- the artist can have an activist role:

... we're all of us trying to influence the future, or the present, or our view of the past. Writing about humanity's relationship with technology is an activist pursuit, because it requires that you take a stand on how things really are, or ought to be. We live in a technological society, and it is impossible to write about technological change without writing about social change.

... If you swipe a DVD from a shop you get a small fine, or if you’ve done it hundreds of times maybe you get some community service—but we don’t come to your house and say, OK, we’re going to cut you off from all the services that deliver freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, access to tools, communities, and ideas, access to education, and civic engagement.

This not a principle we think of as belonging in the justice systems of enlightened countries. People like me fight for copyright reform not because we’re cheap and we want DVDs for free but because, in the name of preventing piracy, corporations and governments are attacking fundamentals like the right to assemble, the right to free speech, the right to operate a free press and the right to organize and work together. Information doesn’t want to be free, people do! Artists need to transcend the self-serving, terrorized, crappy narrative that’s been fed to us by the copyright industries and recognize that the collateral damage from this doomed effort to reduce copying includes the free society that we all cherish.

And there are organizations that will help us. In Australia there’s Electronic Frontiers Australia; worldwide there’s Electronic Frontiers Foundation, Creative Commons, and many other organizations that work for a balanced copyright regime that respects all the civil liberties that are part of a free society and also tries to insure that artists can go on earning their livings as well. ...

Warhol, the media outsider, was eventually subsumed by a culture that said "yes! of course!" to his vision as a single artist. The struggle these days seems to be how intellectual property can still be maintained in a multimedia universe that makes accesibility free, to millions, at the click of a mouse. The jury's still out about intellectual property rights, even as all sides -- individuals and corporations -- continue to deliberate furiously with a Supreme Court battle looming somewhere ahead in the uncertain future.

No comments: