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The New Culture wars: The Individual vs The “Hive”

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Today’s “Soundcheck Smackdown” tackles perhaps the most challenging question facing the arts in the digital age:  how much does the artist “own” their art?  We’ve talked a fair amount over the years about copyright, file-sharing, pirated music… it’s clear that the rise of digital music media has caused a huge downturn in the recording industry and that the music world is still trying to figure out a way for musicians to create their art, contribute it to society, and still be able to make something from it.

It’s also clear that no one has quite figured it out yet.  Perhaps that’s because this is a “long run” type of thing.  The idea that art is bigger than the person who creates it, that art belongs to us all, is an old idea; but the idea that the artist is important and creativity needs to be supported is also old.  

Now, copyright laws, designed to make sure that authors of great works of art do not starve while others profit from their work, have gotten so restrictive, and so long-term, that songs, paintings, and the like are turning into property – into “intellectual property.”  And sure, artists do have to be supported, and have a right to make a living from their art.  But art has always taken inspiration from what’s come before, and with everything tightly locked down in a thicket of publishing, licensing, and other forms of rights management, it becomes harder for artists who don’t have deep pockets and/or a butt-kicking legal team to do what art has always done – borrow and yes, steal, from the other arts. 

This is still a work in progress; the technology we’re talking about is what, 20 years old?  But taking the long view, say 500 or 1000 years from now, part of me wonders if people won’t look back at the copyright laws of the 20th and early 21st centuries and say, what were they all thinking back then?

Tell us: how do we balance artists’ rights with the idea of the “greater good”?

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Comments [2]

Ted Freeman from Atlanta Industrial Designer

Hi John, Joel and friends; I wrote another new full page of free uncontrolled content to offer you (ha!) but in an effort to meet the brevity request, I'll instead just post this partial reply from the blogs at RPM challenge; I wrote it in March 2009.

As a creative professional, I do believe ideas are worth money. I have to. People have been leveraging their output for the history of humanity... if you give something away for free, you are still doing it for a return on your investment, aren't you? The accolades, the growth in fan base, the exposure/advertisement? The chicks? ;-) At any rate, few things are done for "free". Now, there is a difference in compulsive, impulsive musical expression, which folks just toss out there as naturally as breathing. But to me it would be like chatting with you compared to making a prepared speech or then composing a book. There are different levels of engagement and effort; some will inevitably make the cut where I assess that the product will add value to my life, and I should compensate whoever produced it.

I think Joni Mitchell (yes i am not afraid to quote ya Joni) said on a live disk that Van Gogh was never asked to re-paint Starry Night. "He painted it once, and he was done!" And there was only one. I think people are so demoralized by the impossibility of really charging for anything that can be infinitely pirated digitally, and the lack of perceived value of something that is deliverable in bits with no physical form, it now seems like a song is a phantom that has no value. But really it is a creative endeavor and the value, whether charged for or not, is in the ability to move the listener or convey a human connection and emotion.

I have always done things creatively because I can't really stop. So ask me tomorrow and some of my positions may have already changed! Free is good. Free is nice. Free makes you feel better about being helpless to charge, or having something that would only be consumed if donated. Maybe one day we'll evolve into the Great Commune where things are traded like songs for food, etc. - see for example Burning Man culture. That would be really cool! Anyway, hope I make some points because I do think music has value, just like a medicine or a psychiatric session in its ability to affect the psyche of the listener, therefore whether you as an artist choose to bestow that value for a material or emotional compensation is up to you!

Jan. 19 2010 11:27 PM
Scott Ellington from Silicon Valley

Why feed the cow when you can get the milk for free? Mostly because the starving cow dies. There are other reasons in a society/culture/environment/economy in transition, but I'll stick with keeping the cow alive, for now.

Jan. 19 2010 02:06 PM

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