Does copyright matter to creators?

Copyright has increasingly been subjected to public debate. Two weeks before the last UK general election, in May 2015, the Green Party, unwittingly, brought copyright to the attention of certain members of the electorate. The Green Party is a left-leaning, Green, political party with one MP in the House of commons (out of 650 MPs) and 3.8% share of the vote. On 22 April 2015, scrutiny began over one of the points in the party’s policy. This scrutiny appeared to have started on social media through discussions amongst illustrators and writers – many of whom self- identified as green party supporters or at least sympathised with their policies.

The party’s policy at the centre of the discussion was to “introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years”. On 23 April 2015, several newspapers picked up on the social media debate and reported that authors and illustrators were shocked and alarmed with the Green Party’s policy: it would be an “appalling injustice” if this shorter copyright term were to come to effect. There was some confusion, as to what the Green party meant by the policy – did they mean a shorter term of 14 years after publishing or, the longer interpretation ie 14 years after the death of the author, the latter many authors appeared to be less dissatisfied with. After some to and fro, Caroline Lucas, their only MP, admitted that the party had ‘got it wrong’ and had agreed to review its policy on copyright.

The traditional news media coverage ended and this was seen as a resolution of sorts. But what is interesting is that – actually the battle about legitimacy of the authors’ beliefs about the importance of copyright duration in their writing lives continued.  Through online ethnography, it emerged that the discussion amongst authors and illustrators continued on social media even after the traditional news media coverage died. In these discussions, the duration of copyright protection simply became a launch pad for a debate on the role of copyright. There were attacks on creators that suggested they should do some ‘work’ to earn a living, or that copyright is only a means for publishing houses to make money, some suggested that writers don’t earn much as they had seen it reported in newspapers and jumped to the conclusion that as such copyright is irrelevant for them. There were misunderstandings and misgivings about how copyright functions, and also much trolling! These social media discussions served to highlight the bewilderment and frustration of many creators as to the general lack of understanding today about the role of copyright in creative worlds and, how authors make a living. Some creators even saw this as hostile public perception about artists having any rights or having a choice about how they make a living.

Some may consider these frustrations of authors rather surprising, since the “creative industries” have been accused of aggressively justifying the role and importance of copyright in the digital era. But what this story suggests is that voices and perspectives of individual creators on how they exploit copyright, or not exploit copyright, and how they navigate the current economic and technological realities to make a living, have not have been adequately understood. And this incident is just example that highlights the importance of capturing and reflecting the perspectives and interests of the individual creator in debates about copyright today.

In the ‘Individual Creators’ project, which is investigating the interaction between copyright and the everyday life of creative practitioners, I have been examining the following research questions and focussing on the creators’ perspectives:

  • What is the role of copyright in the day to day practice of creative practitioners, and how is it changing? Are their views changing in relation to it and why?
  • What is the actual as well as perceived value of copyright from the creators’ point of view?
  • How are meanings and beliefs regarding copyright being shaped and how do such meanings, beliefs, and experiences regarding copyright ultimately shape the various contours of creators’ practices?

In recent months, I have shared the story above, as well as, early findings from the interview and observation data collected in the project, at a number of recent events:

  • ‘Copyright and Individual Creators: Preliminary Findings from an Empirical Study’ presented at Law and Society Association Annual Meeting, Seattle, USA, 2015
  •  ‘Life on other Worlds: Creators and Copyright’ presented at GikII, Berlin, 2015
  • ‘Creators and copyright: Voices from the field’ presented at Friction and Fiction: IP, Copyright and Digital Futures, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2015
  • ‘It feels like I am always hustling, constantly hustling!: Creators, copyright and business models’ presented at the Global Congress on Intellectual Property & The Public Interest, New Delhi, 2015

Slides from one such presentation can be found here.

An update on the ‘Individual Creators’ project

Since the end of last year, the fieldwork for the ‘Individual Creators’ project has taken a life of its own. Unsurprisingly, organising visits, arranging and conducting interviews, making notes and writing up observations, have been the mainstay of the past year, but it has been extremely rewarding.

I have conducted over 100 semi-structured interviews with a range of writers, illustrators, composers, artists and performers. Some of the questions that have been central to the interviews are: what role (if any) does copyright play in individual practices? How do artists/writers/musicians etc. perspectives vary (if at all)? How has the dominance of the digital domain influenced the way they work and how has it affected (if at all) their view of copyright? How have they responded to the various challenges presented by the digital economy and what role (if any) does copyright play in the way they disseminate their work? Do they see copyright as something that is valuable, and as something that works for them? Is it lacking or perhaps failing to work for them in a way that would suit their needs? Or, is it even relevant to the continuance of their creative practice and the livelihood it affords them?

The interview phase of this project commenced last summer and the Edinburgh Festivals provided an excellent opportunity to speak to creative practitioners who were participating in them. For instance, I was able to interview a range of authors during the Edinburgh International Book festival (to name a few*: Christopher Brookmyre, Alistair Moffat, Denise Mina, John Keay, Pat Mills, Linda Strachan, Cat Clarke, Rob Davis, Karrie Fransman, Chris Haughton) and drew upon referrals from interviewees to follow up with more authors (Sara Sheridan, Lin Anderson, Catherine Czerkawska).

I have also attended some new media festivals (Ars Electronica, ISEA, Transmediale, FutureEverything) and spoken to a range of artists (Davide Quayola, Paolo Cirio, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, Jacob Tonski, James Coupe, Golan Levin, Matthias Fritsch, Ellie Harrison, Joseph DeLappe, Jer Thorp, Memo Akten). These festival visits snowballed into more opportunities, such as visiting FACT in Liverpool (thanks to Mike Stubbs) for the opening of their exhibition Group Therapy, in March this year, where I interviewed a number of artists whose works were being exhibited (Hans Bernhard from Ubermorgen, Katriona Beales, Melanie Manchot and Erica Scourti). Apart from the interviews, I’ve also been conducting ethnographic research at some of these festivals, events, and other spaces that I’ve visited. I’ve also had very useful informal conversations with agents, gallery owners, curators, and representatives of arts organisations.

In particular, one fieldwork opportunity that proved invaluable to my research was being accepted as a visiting scholar at an Atlantic Center for the Arts (ACA) Master-Artist-in-Residence program (thanks to Jim Frost, Nancy Lowden Norman, and Nick Conroy). While at ACA, I interviewed the three ‘master artists’ in residence (Aram Bartholl, Josh Neufeld, and Jonty Harrison) as well as a number of the associate artists they had selected for the residency session. In addition to the interview opportunities, the visit allowed for wide ranging informal conversations about a number of issues: the prevalent norms associated with copying and attribution across different creative sectors, the meaning and value of rights for creators and how it changes over the course of a professional career, the role of branding, and the pressures and challenges faced by early career artists.

Many interviewees (Robert Powell, Rachel McCrum, Sara Woolley, Bonnie Ebner, Tom Smith, Clíodhna, Paper Doll Militia and others) have generously drawn on their personal networks and ties to introduce me to other artists and organisations or have been, very helpfully, drawing my attention to social media discussions amongst creators on copying and copyright. These introductions and suggestions have led to further interviews with creative practitioners based in the UK and the US: musicians (JG Thirlwell, Uri Caine, Marc Ribot), educators and composers of electro-acoustic music (Barry Schrader, Joseph Klein, Eric Honour), comics artists (Jamie Smart, Simon Fraser, Khary Randolph, Reilly Brown), and a range of visual artists (Kittie Jones, Tobias Revell, Merche Blasco, Kyle McDonald, Marius Watz, Jonathan Rosen, Evan Roth).

Over the next 4 months, I will be conducting further interviews with a slightly expanded set of creative practitioners and will test and build upon some of the early findings that have emerged. There are also plans to conduct a separate study, at the beginning of next year, involving content analysis of online media and news, but more on that will follow in a separate post. Eventually, this blog (or a future, advanced version of it) will document the final findings of the project but I will also be sharing excerpts from a selection of interviews in the upcoming months.

*I’ve mentioned here the names of only a few of those interviewees who were happy to be identified. All interviewees, whether willing to be identified or choosing to remain anonymous, will be thanked suitably in full reports of the project.