Copyright theft: a scourge to be purged or just a fact of life?

Image: Photolibrary

Tom Church argues that the answer to the art theft dilemma lies in a balance between what's right and what's possible.

Imagine if when Michelangelo unveiled David – which took him two years to carve – somebody came up with a scanner, walked around it and came back with an exact replica the next day produced with a 3D printer. I imagine Michelangelo would have been both angry at the result, and amazed at the technology. In 1501, there was not a chance of this happening, but today it’s business as usual.

Art is supposed to be scarce: produced once; a unique piece. With the web, scarcity vanishes and with it so does the idea of ownership for digital works. On the one hand, it’s a wonderful platform where the artist can share their work with a worldwide audience in a click. On the other, that worldwide audience can do what they want with it: rip it, remix it, re-share it.

On artist membership sites such as devianART you will find thousands of conversations about art theft. Everyday an artist finds their work has been ripped, taken credit for, redistributed and resold. You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice is a blog dedicated to such finds, and when you read their frustrations alongside the many articles online about how the creative industries are under threat from copyright theft, you’d rightly notice two extreme views:

  • What I make is mine and nobody can touch it
  • What I make is everyone's and anybody can touch it

The creative industries face a dilemma: they play an large and important role in the economy and society but struggle to capitalise on success due to art theft. The dilemma deepens however, for creative businesses that do succeed usually do so through protectionist practices, which in turn, damage overall creativity in the industry. Those that don’t succeed die fast, and creativity is lost.

This explains why there are so many tiny creative businesses on a very high churn rate, and so few big ones. In 2012, Ingenious, an investment firm based in London who funded movies such as Avatar, Shaun of the Dead and Rise of Planet of the Apes wrote to the UK government detailing this problem:

"The most intractable problem facing the UK’s creative business sector is its inability to grow companies to a scale at which they are capable of competing globally by retaining for reinvestment the commercial returns generated by their creative successes," said their letter.

"Most UK creative businesses, of which there are more than 180,000 according to BIS figures, are tiny – not big enough even to be described as SMEs-and sub-scale, that is to say they live from hand to mouth subsisting on serial projects.

"We have very few large and medium sized companies in the audio-visual and entertainment fields. Whereas in the 1950s and 1960s the UK could boast two world class media and entertainment companies in EMI and the Rank Organisation, fifty years later we cannot boast a single player to rival Disney, Bertelsman or Vivendi in the global market (apart from the BBC, which is funded by the licence fee and is in public ownership)...

"In content production specifically, the UK’s creative economy mainly comprises an eco-system of interlocking micro-businesses, freelancers and the self-employed. More than 90% of the UK’s creative businesses employ four people or less according to the government’s own statistics. Some of these companies are small because their founder-managers like it that way, but others are small because their owners do not know how to scale them up to grow and become commercially sustainable."

George Lucas agrees and explains how the biggest threat to Hollywood is a lack of creativity as a result of big corporations sucking up studios and starving them of funds and talent:

When searching for an answer to the art theft dilemma, many jump to option one of the extremist view:  What I make is mine and nobody can touch it. We should have stronger protection laws and powers. And those that do believe this are taking matters into their own hands, employing auto-takedown notices and filing copyright lawsuits. Yet such a hard-nosed view cannot exist perfectly and in the long-term for the creative industry where its very being comes from stuff being remade, reimagined, re-cut, remixed.

It’s how art genres come about: copying. Pop Art, Surrealism, Dubstep, Gothic literature, vampire films. While in Anthropology, evolution diffusion theory holds that cultures influence one another but that similar ideas can be developed in isolation, most accept that all cultures imitate ideas from one or a few original cultures. As humans, we learn through mimicry. Our imagination is synced with what we’ve experienced. Terrence McKenna wrote, "What we call imagination is actually the universal library of what’s real. You couldn’t imagine it if it weren’t real somewhere, sometime."

The answer to art theft is not as simple as to protect or not to protect? To understand why, ask yourself these three questions:

  • Would you agree that promoting creativity has benefits to mankind?
  • Would you agree that in most cases, you learn a skill or knowledge from others?
  • Would you agree that it is usually to society’s benefit for those with knowledge or skills to share them with others?

If you agree with any of these three questions, you’re at loggerheads with those who hold the extreme protectionist views.

The answer to the art theft dilemma lies in a balance and Lawrence Lessig hits it head-on in the TED talk below.

Furthermore, art theft is not one point of view. Different artists believe it to be different things.

Dr Dan Perkel of University of California, Berkley, conducted an ethnographic study of devianART members for two years and concluded artists felt most strongly against these three very different types of art theft:

  • Permission: someone used their work but didn’t ask first
  • Credit: someone used their work but didn’t credit them
  • Money: someone used their work and made money from it either directly or indirectly

The anger raised by the types of theft is caused by issues of morality, identity or finance. Michelangelo may have felt it was unfair of the 3D-printed reproduction of David because it didn’t ask his permission. He may also have felt that it stole his identity if they went on to show it to the world without crediting him. And he may have felt frustration financially if they sold the copy for money. These are three very different problems.

In order for the creative industry as a whole to grow, it must recognise that art theft does not fit under one umbrella term. It does not, and should not result in complete protectionism, and that the sharing of creativity should be encouraged. Lawrence Lessig has taken strides for this by campaigning for the Creative Commons license, where artists are free to choose what level of copyright protection they’d like to employ, and leading artists are realising that sometimes it is good to be copied. What remains difficult is how to be recognised and respected for the work you do.

Tom Church is a mentor and guest lecturer at University College London and City University where he discusses business development in the creative industries and copyright issues.

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