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
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
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
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.