Creativity can seem singularly unrewarding
Copyfight Edited by Phillipa McGuinness NewSouth, 294pp, $29.99 The cultural change wrought by the internet has been profound. It is arguable that humanity has not experienced a comparable revolution since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-15th century, which led to mass literacy and was a driver of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
But it also gave rise to sharp practice. In England, by the early 18th century a consensus had developed that creative artists deserved legal protection against those who would copy their work and republish it for profit. Queen Anne’s statute of 1710 gave birth to the law of copyright.
In its initial form, protection lasted for 21 years. Nowadays in Australia it lasts for the lifetime of the artist plus 70 years. Artists so protected include writers, musicians (composers
June 27-28, 2015 and performers) and those involved in making movies and television programs. Crucially — and in this respect the law has not changed since 1710 — protection extends only to the form of expression of an artist’s ideas, not to the ideas themselves.
The digital era has hugely enhanced “information sharing”, which is a good thing. But it has also spawned widespread flouting of copyright laws, infringement on an unprecedented scale. Illegal downloading and uploading is endemic. Sydney publisher Phillipa McGuinness, the editor of this lively collection of essays, regards these practices as a serious threat to artistic creativity. Most of her contributors agree.
In a punchy introduction, McGuinness explains that Copyfight is about “the connection between content, creativity and the internet”. Her focus is on culture and morality rather than black-letter law. She poses the question: “Does the digital world give us licence to behave differently, to hold different values than we did in the analog world?” Is theft no longer theft?
It seems many citizens think so. Plenty of telling statistics are cited. We learn, for example, that 29 per cent of Australians admit to illegally downloading movies and TV shows (which means the real figure is probably much higher). According to Attorney-General George Brandis, “Australia is the worst offender of any country … when it comes to piracy”.
Existing laws are mostly useless against individual infringers. Joe Public is not worth suing. And internet service providers are, as the law stands, largely immune from suit.
Who are the biggest losers? Few would shed tears for the giant electronic media and entertainment conglomerates and their overpaid executives. In the battle between Silicon Valley and Hollywood, there are few, if any, heroes. Indeed, several of McGuinness’s essayists concede that one reason for the public’s cynical behaviour is its memory of ruthless monopolist practices in the recent past. Record company bigwigs were among the worst offenders. No one likes being ripped off.
But here’s the rub. By and large, the big corporations and those who run them are still doing fine. It’s the artists trying to scratch a living (those below the superstar level) who are losing out financially. Musicians may be the hardest hit — by a combination of illegal and legal digital behaviour. One contributor, Melbourne-based Justin Heazlewood, who has been releasing albums since 2003 as the Bedroom Philosopher, laments drolly: “For the over 600,000 YouTube Plays I’ve received to date: $168. For Spotify — nothing. Not even an offer of a free membership. I’m actually paying $10 a month to listen to my own songs.”
Creative writers have suffered too. Very few in Australia have ever raked in big dollars. Ten years ago their average annual income was $23,000. Now it is $11,000. As author Linda Jaivin says, “many people would be surprised how many well-known names earn incomes from their creative work that roughly compare to that of a cleaner on a minimum wage”.
The case for root-and-branch reform of copyright laws, to eradicate online theft and to elevate the incomes of creative artists, would appear to be a strong one. Publisher Jose Bor-