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Barlow was Right

An interesting li’l unit came whizzing through the ether a few months ago. The Cato Institute, the extreme right-wing conservative-to-the-point-of-libertarian think-tank issued a policy report titled Amateur-to-Amateur, The Rise of a New Creative Culture (www.cato.org/pub_display .php?pub_id=6359). In the piece, a couple of Cato scholars make the case that copyright law, as presently configured, exists primarily for the preservation of the entrenched “copyright industries,” and that the arrival of the Internet and digital media have made these “copyright industries” less important. The conclusion is maybe the time has come, as it has come before, to take a hard look at our current regime of copyright laws.

The study looked at what’s been happening on the Internet, and discussed the theories of John Perry Barlow, the ex-Grateful Dead lyricist who in the early ’90s began publishing tomes about digital media, the Web, and the end of copyright as we know it. Barlow has been mocked, ridiculed, and marginalized relentlessly by Big Media for years. One copyright newsletter I get constantly refers to him as a leader of the “anti-creator crusade.” The Cato study concludes that Barlow was pretty much right.

The Cato folks describe traditional copyright as centralized and “imperial,” which was fine when the production of the creative works was largely the work of big movie studios, record companies, etc., when these entities controlled the major facets of creation, selection, promotion and distribution of creative works.

But the Internet has changed all of that. Anybody with a laptop and half a brain can now do everything these industries used to do. And most of these folks don’t give a good goddamn about copyright law. They just want to be heard.

Look at creation. My laptop came with a recording studio in it. I haven’t had time to figure out how to use it, but it’s there. Lots of people are making their own recordings at home, and the cost of going to a studio has even dropped precipitously. Last year a student of mine, armed with a digital camera, shot two original feature films on a budget of exactly zero dollars. He’s gotten a distribution deal for both of them. Look at the homemade stuff on YouTube. Cruise the bands on MySpace, giving away music. Look at all of the blogs, where people are posting essays and commentaries about everything.

The mantra from the RIAA and the MPAA, their justification for suing their own customers, is that if people don’t pay for music and films, no more music and films will be made. Think again. A study released earlier this week found that there is actually more original music being created in the United States today than ever before. I suspect that goes double for films.

If what they mean is that no more You, Me and Dupree movies and no more Paris Hilton CDs will be made, well, I, for one, am down with that.

Look at selection. Used to be that the major copyright industries were the filter, and by releasing only few works decided what it was we would listen to, watch, and read. No more. Everything is publishable by anyone. Everything is out there, and the public can decide what’s good. And it does.

Promotion? I no longer advise music clients to advertise in traditional media. Working the blogs and MySpace is infinitely more effective. And you get feedback, good or bad, immediately.

Distribution? Step one: point. Step two: click.

What’s going to be the result of this? Is copyright dead? Are the studios going to crumble?

No. Copyright will always be around, but our relationship with it is changing. Copyright should continue on as an important weapon against piracy and stealing, but those terms need to be realistically defined (no, Junior, downloading a movie is not the same as stealing a car). Copyright’s application will be more limited than it is now, and it should be applied to truly encourage creativity, not be used as a tool for stifling competition.

The Big Media companies will get a whole lot smaller as their relevance fades. It’s really just a matter of market share. The music industry will probably take the biggest hit, as people have been listening to digital music for 20 years now, and the industry has been repeatedly hoisted on its own petard by an astonishing series of tactical blunders, like refusing to sell music online and suing its own customers. The film industry will get smaller, but should hang in there. People like movie stars, big movies, and critically, the shared experience of watching movies in big rooms full of strangers. But the importance of the big studios, the number of “stars,” and the dominance of big films will shrink. The jury’s still out on publishing. The world of book publishing is easily as intolerably corrupt as the music and film industry, but people like their books. I do. I don’t wanna read a book on my computer. Magazines will take the biggest hit, and one would hope that desktop publishing, and Internet-based and independent booksellers, will, to some degree, at least dent the banal hegemony of the major publishing houses.

Things are changing fast, and soon they will be very different. And better.

—Paul C. Rapp


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