I spend a lot of time listening to NPR. If I’m not listening to my own music collection in the car, the radio is usually tuned to All Things Considered or Morning Edition. Some might say it’s because I’m old. No. I’m listening to 80s pop and old-school rap because I’m old. I’m listening to NPR because it’s a habit I got into when I was still in college (and I ran a pirate radio station, but that’s a story for another time). Anyway, the other day this story about Taylor Swift came on. Actually, it’s not about Taylor Swift at all – she is mentioned one time in the entire story – but NPR has a pretty savvy digital media team, and they know how Facebook works. Any story with her name in the headline, or her picture attached, is irresistible click-bait. But I digress.
The story is about many artists who are lobbying congress to reform copyright law. This caught my attention. (You’re about to discover, dear reader, that this is a political post masquerading as a post about writing.) Because, you see, I’ve been calling for copyright reform for at least a decade, if not longer. Copyright law in this country is completely broken and the NPR reporter and all of the other artists apparently agree with me. Yay!
But here’s the rub. They agree it’s broken and they want to reform it to make it better, faster, stronger. Well, here’s where I get myself into trouble. My fellow writers may brand me as a heretic (and a hypocrite) for saying it, but I want to repeal it. I want to get rid of it entirely. I want to amend the Constitution and remove any mention of it. Why? Because everything is a remix. Because Draconian measures to protect so-called intellectual property actually serve to stifle creativity and innovation. And because I don’t believe that Disney should be allowed to prevent Steamboat Willie from entering the public domain for all eternity.
But Jerry, aren’t you looking to profit from a work that you created? Yes. How do you expect to do that without copyright law to protect your work? I’m glad you asked me that. The answer is, I don’t. I expect contracts law to protect my work. I expect technology to step up and do the heavy lifting. But most importantly, I expect our society’s attitude to change about how we compensate our artists. I was on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco a few months ago waiting to board a cable car. A street musician was set up right next to the long line I was standing in. At one point, he stopped playing right in the middle of a phrase. He put his instrument down and announced to the crowd that if they didn’t start putting money in his hat, he was going to leave and play somewhere else. Was he out of line for demanding payment for that? Judging from the number of people who responded (including me), apparently not. Of course, no one there asked him to entertain us. But then again, he wasn’t asking for a specific amount of money. It’s called patronage. If you enjoy the work, you pay what you think it’s worth. I’d like to see us return to this model for all creative works – music, writing, drawing – you name it. It was the dominant business model for centuries, especially during the Renaissance, and it apparently worked, because as far as I can tell, there is no shortage of art from this time period. Sites like Patreon.com and others are attempting to bring this model back into vogue and I applaud them for doing it.
There is no reason why it can’t work. We just have to reprogram about 300 million Americans to start treating artists the same way they treat their server at their favorite restaurant. If you believe you received something of value, you are obligated to return the favor. So how about it, folks? A few less laws, and a bit more love. What do you say?