Does copyright law turn art into commodities? part 2: copying China, here, is hardly the right road to take
Surely America, supremely the land of individualists, is the most unlikely destroyer of copyright?
In the home of Thoreau, Walden Pond’s immortal hermit; of Gertrude Stein, so original that she revelled in her incomprehensibility – also the country that reveres the hard act to follow of a Janis Joplin flaring up, dying young, and leaving behind an inextinguishable brilliance – you might expect to read that copyright law is …
… concerned with the moral rights of authors, which are based on the author’s creative sense of self. Moral rights are the author’s right to protect his or her personal relationship with their work.
But no, those thoughts of a lawyer, Anna Spies, were published on an Australian website dedicated to discussions of intellectual property law. She was referring not to the American perspective on copyright, or the antipodean one, but to the historical view of ‘civil law countries in continental Europe.’
Today’s America — or certainly the one envisaged most enthusiastically by its youngest adults — apparently looks forward to adopting Chinese practices that do not, by long-established tradition, place any value on the shaping of work by a distinctive sensibility and the quirks in the exercise of a particular individual’s talent and skills.
This is not a little ironic. As post-Gutenberg’s last post showed, rich countries outside Asia have been showing scarcely any interest in digging down into the roots of Chinese culture and philosophy. Yet intelligent thinkers, with Americans in the lead, are making a case for replacing the glorification of creativity and originality that sparked and drove the Renaissance with deeply Chinese arguments in favour of wholesale imitation, extending to wide-ranging intellectual and commercial piracy. Last month, a Reuter’s blogger with a following among power-brokers was citing a respected scholarly journal when he rallied his fellow copyright opponents:
[L]ook at the Chinese YouTube, Youku, which is displacing television in large part because it has no copyright verification. As Chinese media companies evolve to take advantage of Youku, they will be much better placed to compete in the 21st Century than US companies which rely on copyright laws to keep consumers boxed in to increasingly-unnatural modes of consumption. […]
Chinese piracy also brings innovation within the grasp of a huge population of poorer Chinese, with long-term positive effects for all … [… from …] shanzhai — low-cost copies of items which would not be affordable otherwise.
Like so much else in China, the meaning of shanzhai is undergoing a drastic change. As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, “Once a term used to suggest something cheap or inferior, shanzhai now suggests to many a certain Chinese cleverness and ingenuity.” Indeed, Beijing seems to believe that shanzhai is something to cultivate. In 2009, an official from China’s National Copyright Administration declared that “shanzhai shows the cultural creativity of the common people.” He added, “It fits a market need and people like it”…
Might ‘Yay, shanzhai!’ … have replaced ‘The East is red!’ for sinophiles among those U.S. intellectuals bent on aligning themselves with the future? Anyone interested in reading the curious case for that in the blogger’s source, Foreign Affairs, is blocked by a paywall protecting …well, could you ever have guessed, copyright? This is so absurd, and what we have gleaned of Foreign Affairs’ endorsement of shanzhai so underwhelming, that we see no point in handing over $5.
‘How the World Benefits from Chinese Piracy’ is the Reuters blogger’s title. Fine, bring it on … if – as he and some of his commenters (below his post) agree – the Chinese pirates’ targets are multinational pharmaceutical giants, or other obscenely profitable and dishonest corporations or business sectors. Unfortunately, it does not stop there, and both the Reuters blog and what we have gleaned of the Foreign Affairs essay fail to impress, for at least two reasons:
• Benjamin Franklin, the American founding father most admired for his inventiveness, is dragged in to sprinkle holy water on intellectual piracy because he ‘made a substantial sum from republishing the works of British authors without permission or payment.’ Surely that has to be reckoned as an act of aggression, not a feat of commercial genius? Franklin’s dislike of his transatlantic cousins is notorious. (See ‘The fine and noble china vase, the British Empire …’ — or, for a contemporary perspective, ‘Ben Franklin Really Fucking Hated the British …’ in cracked.com.)
• Once again, it seems, the greed of monster corporations in the music business has been spotlighted to justify depriving, of even their token crusts, the majority of artists and musicians getting by on their equivalents of Grub Street.
Foreign Affairs’ summary of the essay says:
Traditional music labels have decried the copying of recorded music, arguing that it discourages the composition and performance of new music. According to the authors, that is simply not the case: it is the traditional business model of the labels that is under threat, not the production of music. And copyright was conceived to protect creative activity, not particular business models.
By now, this line of attack on copyright is not merely unconvincing but verges on lazy and boring. Why not pour the mental energy into finding ways to separate the needs of creative artists from the exploitation of copyright by large corporations selling copies of works of art?
The ‘author’s creative sense of self’ to which Anna Spies refers in the Australian blog post at the start of this entry encapsulates what we sensed about an outstanding friend of this blog, as we watched Crofters, a marvel of documentary film-making about a small crofting community in the Scottish Highlands, shot in 1945.
Writing movingly about losing his mother, Agnes, in May, John Logan (or, to avert Google-fusion, John A. A. Logan) said on the Authors Electric site that she was ‘the best person I ever knew’. She is the smallest girl in the party of schoolchildren following their teacher in our still photograph (above) and, her son has told post-Gutenberg, gave his work her enthusiastic, unqualified, unstinting support.
Listening to the lovely concision in the language of folk in Achriesgill, where she lived at that age, you realize that you have heard their echoes in the dialogue in John’s finest short stories, of which we have featured samples, here. In the film, someone is heard speculating about the destination of Nurse McKay, also the local midwife: ‘I wonder, now, where will it be she’s off to in her wee car this morning?’ A female voiceover, in footage of a woman cleaning a lamp: ‘I wonder, now, when will we get the electricity that there’s been so much talking about?’
The anti-copyright crowd insists that all art is ‘remix’ or ‘mashup’ trickery – a bizarre and anachronistic re-definition based on capacities for simulating artistic creation that were impossible before we were given today’s technological equipment. The words of long-dead artists are misconstrued for credibility (of the inattentive):
Although remix has always been an aspect of human culture the phenomenon takes on more significance in the digital age, because of the ease with which a creator of a new cultural artifact can “steal” to use the term from Stravinsky’s observation that all composers steal and the great composers steal the most. Music, text and images are easily transferred from one digital device to another especially because of the Internet which allows this phenomenon to take place on a global scale.
This remix culture means, apparently, that no artist deserves to expect to make anything like a living from his art (a subject that goes unmentioned in the movement’s manifestoes). But, like John’s, any work of literature or art is both saturated with and dictated by family and place – or their rejection; with psychological inheritances and consequences – indistinguishable, in other words, from personal experience and individuality.
It is from studying the techniques of artistic forebears that most arts workers learn how to shape this raw material, which bears the stamp of its influences. That is not the same as puffed up cut-and-paste exercises or shameless copying. Both the ability and opportunity to make use of gifts of personal history and talent are almost always hard-earned – or, as so many biographies testify, when seemingly effortless, can extract the steep price in misfortune that often follows success.
There are Chinese cultural traditions worthy of surpassing respect and even imitation. Why conflate bringing consumer goods — manufactured commodities — and prescription drugs within the reach of poor Chinese, with rights of artistic ownership, depriving all artists of the means to earn the occasional soupçon of calories – if not, as the internet pioneer Jaron Lanier insists, the chance to grow rich?
Why not distinguish between copyright protection for individual creators and corporations hawking the fruits of creativity? Why not help to make micropayments for artists routine — as unremarkable as online shopping? (See: ‘Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support “lyric perception”?’)