Copyright and the Golden Age

Canada considers changing its copyright laws to prevent the free distribution of music on the Internet. Some claim that such copying is an attack on the artist; others are the middle men who fear for their incomes in a golden age of art. We have more to fear from draconian laws than from a society that joyfully immerses itself in its culture. If we enforce our copyrights too sternly, we will not only take the joy from music and film and the entertainments which make humanity unique, we will also attack the thoughts, commentary, and debate which are the lifeblood of a democratic society.

Let us start at the beginning. Copying is not inherently wrong, and it is not even legally theft. Copyright was a concept created by English censors centuries ago, and brought into the modern era by a newborn and uncertain America which wished to encourage its citizens to be makers of culture. The founders of the United States believed that copyright, while it provided a limited 14 to 28 year monopoly and violated the free market, would encourage more than it repressed. And it would repress: they understood the risk, as they understood that copyright could not and should not give eternal control to an artist.

Artists are not motivated by control1 – if they were, they would create their work and keep it locked away where no-one could see. Neither are they all motivated by money. Indeed, few can be because few become wealthy; paintings are famous for being worthless until their painter’s death. Artists – and include in their number writers of all sorts – wish to express something, to share it with their community and to influence their fellow people. I think few artists would trade recognition for wealth and consider their art a success, and for that we all benefit. We hope to right the balance so that the artists can afford to bring their gifts to the world.

Their art is based on past works. Much of the greatest art is great precisely because of what it borrows – think of the Simpsons without its references to American pop culture, or Warhol without Marilyn Monroe. All art, from electronic music with samples of old songs or the plays of Shakespeare whole stories were proudly taken from past works and in doing so created expressions in turn copied by the language. None of this copying diminished the value of art; indeed, copying often enhances is: with the right quote or tune an artist links in to the rhythms and associations of an entire culture. If it were even possible for art to stand apart, entirely original, it would be no part of culture. Cut off from the culture which it feeds, art would wither and die.

We who are not artists also depend on their work. We dance to their music, lose ourselves in their writings, and are enraged and enlightened by their commentary on the politics and workings of the society we live in. It enlivens us because we participate – we hum the lyrics and change them, we dance and the player plays. Art is created not only by the artist, but also by the audience. It is no accident that great societies go hand in hand with great artists, from the philosophers and sculptors of Athens to the painters of Florence and Paris. Only inhuman societies (the Nazis, the Soviet Union) have been dead to art. We suppress it at our own risk.

Now we have the Internet, which has brought a gallery of art into our homes. Project Gutenburg publishes great books for all to read, galleries show images of famous paintings, music downloads abound. More: the barriers to entry are erased, the middle man eliminated. Writers upload their manuscripts and increase book sales. Musicians pound away in their studios and share their work for all to see. Surely this can be no threat to art!

But that is how we have cast it. The Internet is now the villain. Fear mongers cry that if we are surrounded by music we must inevitably lose it. We must shut things down, close the window that lets in the music. It is hogwash. The artists have nothing to fear. Musicians who make a bare few percentage points on the sales of their songs have an opportunity to work without the middle man. It is he who is afraid, for it is he who has become redundant. If he cannot find a function in a world with more and varied art than ever before, then he is not needed.

Furthermore, we cannot prevent this copying. Countries with stronger laws have had no more success. If a war on drugs cannot stop our children from using substances which harm them, what hope have we of stopping the ephemeral signals which carry their birthright and the lifeblood of their culture?

This battle over piracy and copyright is not about artists starving for lack of money. Some may believe it, but the Internet will no more destroy them than the VCR or the cassette recorder before it. This simply a battle for money and control by those who neither create nor participate in our culture. Copied music may not be noble, but as Justice von Finckenstein understands when he compares the computers on the Internet to photocopiers in the library2, there is no way to stop only some of the music. The file sharers may not be right, but those who wish to stop them are certainly wrong.


1 Despite the outrageous claim of the Globe & Mail, which claims that perhaps there is a business reason to allow copying on the Internet, but that “It does not speak to the right and wrong of the situation . . . it is vital that creators and performers be given legal recourse if someone uses their work without authorization.” Then we would be in thrall to those who create our art, mute spectators forbidden to participate in our own culture. If this is right and wrong then black is white and newsprint is worth less than it used to be (The Globe & Mail, editorial, 2 April 2004).

2 This is the judge who this past week ruled that placing music on a computer and allowing others to download was like placing a photocopier in a library and hence not illegal in Canada. His ruling has been interpreted as indicating that peer-to-peer Internet music sharing is legal in Canada.