A New Kind of Culture Needs A New Kind of Law

I’ve stated pretty openly that I see the Internet as ushering a new era–not just of technological capability, but of influence over human moral and societal structures.  Gopnik’s idea of the Internet  as a “contraption [that] may shape our consciousness, but it is our consciousness that makes our credos, and we mostly live by those” stuck with me. I argued that

“We’ve moved beyond the fact of the Internet being merely a ‘presence’ or ‘contraption.’ It is a society in and of itself, a virtual reality overlaid a physical one, but with no less real repercussions. Human “consciousness” and thus “credos” are influenced, expanded and rewired in the face of a multitude of subjectivities and an extra layer of reality, the human world will expand, collapse, and change in ways we can, at this moment, only speculate.” 

My argument sounds a bit New Agey, even to me, but the opportunity to look critically at current copyright law in the face of digital information sharing via the Internet is an interesting case study to illustrate my line of thinking. If we begin to think of use, function, and sharing beyond only print culture and expand to adapt to the realities of electronic culture, the laws and protections regarding intellectual property will need to find a balance which benefits creators, publishers and the public. The model for this already exists: it’s called the Creative Commons. 

In the 1960’s, Marshall McLuhan proclaimed that society was moving from the print age to the electronic age– one in which print culture is replaced by electronic aural and oral culture– I would go a step further to add “participatory culture”. McLuhan argued that the fragmented nature of electronic transactions would cause society to reassemble itself in a kind of “global village” or collectivism. Keeping in mind this prediction was made 30 years before the invention of the Internet and yet uncannily describes it, one must imagine a McLuhanian argument in regards to intellectual property: that the enclosure, or contemporary copyright law, is no longer valid because the law was a result of print technology. From the 1710 Statue of Anne, this law was considered a compromise between the utilitarian position of intellectual property, which valued published work in regards to public interest, versus the natural-rights position, which valued the individual’s right over their creation (Hesse 36). The current Canadian Copyright Act , and similarly copyright laws in other nations, apply copyright only to intellectual property that has been recorded. In Western tradition, for better or worse, this makes sense as communication, ownership, and idea transmission has travelled via printed text. But print and recording are based on a concept of stasis: that the original is the authority and any copy is just that, a replica. The individual, the singular original, is the foundation of print culture and by extension, copyright. When we consider the nature of electronic communication, its inherent copy mode of transmission, editable and shareable capabilities, current copyright law feels like a small square cage for a gigantic, amorphous creature.

As a person involved in artistic production, I am aware and stand by an artist’s right to their work and labour. I imagine I might be upset if I found another person profiting from the copy and resale of a piece of art I had made. On the other hand, I don’t believe anything is truly original and that human creation has always been a form of re-creation.  I am a proponent of the iterative process that involves reinterpreting existing works– be they chords of a song, a pharmaceutical formula, lines of coding– to make something better, even ground-breaking.  This is no different in the digital age; it is amplified. How can creation happen if creations are locked down to one rights holder?

The answer, I believe, stands in the Creative Commons model. Creative Commons is a non-profit organaization that provides legal creative rights for creators to apply to their work which both protects the natural-rights of the author as well as specifies the level of usage (access within the public domain) the author chooses the work to have. Since it is applied by the creators, it overrides any kind of automatic copyright and puts agency into the hands of the maker.  Imagine if graphic novelists or musicians all chose to allow their work to exist under Creative Commons: scanners of comics and remixers distributing their creations would be celebrated, not penalized; creative iteration would proliferate; and the creator’s intellectual property would be legally protected. Current protectionism around intellectual property is often founded in fear of a loss of profit, for the author but primarily for the publisher. This was true in 1710 for the Stationers’ Company, when the purchase of printed copies of a work were the only way to access the work or make profit off of it. It is understandable that publishers, on or offline, would want to maintain this control today– protected copies are their lifeblood. However, unlike the 14-year term of the Statute of Anne, Canada now sees a term of life+50 years, with chances of an increase as Canada negotiates with the US term of 75 years in NAFTA talks. The bottom line, for me, is that the electronic, aural, oral, and participatory culture–that is, the user– is going to drive the use of content, whether authors, publisher or the law likes it or not.  James Boyle sums up the argument for shorter copyright terms and bringing work under Creative Commons neatly:

“The goal of the system ought to be to give the monopoly only for as long as necessary to provide an incentive. After that, we should let the work fall into the public domain where all of us can use it, transform it, adapt it, build on it, republish it as we wish.” (11)

The transition of any era is difficult. It is hard to shed ingrained (brainwashed?) ideas about the meaning of property and ownership. As global society moves into a globalized, connected and accessible framework, legal protection of content needs to move as well. I propose it move out into the Common.


Works Cited

Boyle, James. 2008. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. Yale University Press. http://www.thepublicdomain.org/.

Hesse, Carla. 2002. “The Rise of Intellectual Property, 700 B.C.–A.D. 2000: An Idea in the Balance.” Daedelushttp://www.amacad.org/publications/spring2002/hesse.pdf.

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