Copyright Doesn’t Restrain Culture – Reflections on 2 myths of the anti-copyright lobby from David Newhoff

Writer and filmmaker, David Newhoff looks at two prominent myths on the effects of copyright on access and on creativity in a two part essay published in his blog - Illusion of More.  Anti-copyright lobbyists argue that copyright acts as a barrier to the diffusion of cultural works and to the creation of derivative and new works.  Not only are these assertions based on generalisations but also neither are supported by the consumer’s or the creator’s experiences, practices, or behaviours.

In his first essay on the effect of copyright on Access, Newhoff addresses the claim that copyright terms are too long and therefore deprive consumers of great and important works.  He points out the vast majority of piracy is directed at popular contemporary works like new films or hit TV shows so that even the shortest copyright terms would make no difference.  Indeed longer copyright terms probably are the most effective means to preserve classic works for the small segment of the market that does want access to them, in that they provide the funds to restore, remaster and retranslate them.  As for the more popular works demanded by the market, Newhoff concludes “The reality is that we have more works legally and affordably available than at any time in history”.

In the second part of his essay, on copyright and creativity, Newhoff quotes the Pirate Party of UK as saying “Shorter copyright will encourage artists to keep on creating new work, will allow  new art forms (such as mash-ups) and will stop big businesses from relying on large back-catalogues rather than investing in new content.” 

He lambasts as offensive the idea that drastically reduced copyright terms will “encourage artists to keep creating new works” and points out that it completely misunderstand the motivation of artists, who generally create because they have something to say and stop when they feel that they have said it.  Indeed some residual income from past works make it easier for artists to produce new (potentially great) ones. In addition, copyright is not just about money and many artists are concerned that their works are not appropriated for causes or speakers of which they disapprove.  Newhoff writes “So, in a paradigm with incredibly short copyright terms, if an author sees that, in less than a decade, her voice may be “remixed” into oblivion, or used by speakers she finds odious, or merely exploited to sell toothpaste, what incentive does she have for putting a new work into the world, especially if she does not need the money?  Perhaps no incentive at all”.  He recognises that borrowing from other creators (either deliberately or subconsciously) has always been an important part of creation but argues that “copyright has proven to be remarkably elastic in its ability to grant ownership to a particular expression without preventing the creation of a vast number of adjacent, similar yet distinct, expressions”.

Turning to the proposition that “big business” would fund more new creation if it could not rely on its back catalogue, he points out that a) many publishers/film companies certainly cannot be regarded as “big business”; b) companies need anyway to continue to produce new offerings in order to remain relevant in the market and c) without the funding from earlier successes they do not have the resources to invest in new works.

Newhoff concludes his essay “The bottom line is that society wants creators to have careers because they are most likely to produce their best works in markets and systems in which they are able to make careers out of their labours”. Copyright has always been the foundation of the creative industry and he challenges copyright’s detractors either to provide solid proof that it now constitutes an obstacle to creativity and access or to shut up.