Concerning Intellectual Property: A Conversation Between Pat Aufderheide and Ellen Seiter (Part Three)

Copyright was historically constructed as a “balancing act” between the interests in authors in gaining compensation for their ideas and the public in being able to meaningfully deploy those ideas towards the common benefit. Yet, copyright is now increasingly understood through a conflictual lens, where one group must benefit at the cost of the other, or as Ellen characterizes it at one point, “an arms race between content creators and content users.” Is there any way to move this back from a conflict-based frame in ways that might create a win-win scenario for all participants? Why or why not?

Ellen: This is capitalism we are dealing with, so I don’t expect there to be a happy ending. In fact, I think it would be better to look as harshly as possible about the competing interests and recognize the class war embedded in it. If anything, I think copyright can help us to understand how much labor is being devalued and how much has already been given away. So I am less interested in protecting the freedom of fans, for example, and more interested in protecting those professionals (and in this I include the below-the-line workers in the media industries) to be able to sustain a living wage and even a steady income for those who are successful. It is precisely on the battleground of Internet streaming (where so much can be captured for free and repurposed) that the WGA and SAG suffered serious losses, since the studios deemed it merely promotional and therefore not a use that bore on residuals.

Digital Content Creation shook the media industries by providing new distribution outlets for creative work and a demand for new skill sets among creative workers, something that has exacerbated the tendency to favor the young for employment and discard the older, more experienced, and more labor-savvy workers. When we look at dramatic/ fictional media creation the picture shifts considerably from the issues in documentary work. The expansion of dreams of “making it” as a director, an actor, a musician or a writer has produced a new and quite unrealistic model of training in which young people are encouraged to invest enormous resources in training, self-promotion, technology, and unpaid content creation—in the hopes of being discovered, or securing an unpaid internship. My main concern is that digital content creation has been exploited by studios, talent agencies and television networks to undermine the creative and craft guilds in Hollywood. In these historic labor struggles, talent gave away their rights through work-for-hire contracts, but the consolation prize was decent wages, benefits and residual payments to make up for the long periods of unemployment and the long periods of unremunerated preparation for these jobs. Now that Google is moving in the direction of big media, distributing expensive, professionally produced content, there is a lot of room for further exploitation, where creative talent is paid merely in ad revenues, not by salary or residuals.

Pat: I couldn’t agree more that the rhetorical positioning is now conflictual. Bill Patry, in his smart book Copyright Wars, calls this a moral panic. A moral panic is when people are arguing about the wrong problem in a highly emotional way. Or to quote Wikipedia, without employing fair use, since all the stuff on Wikipedia is made freely available under a Creative Commons license, “Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo.”

I’ve talked about the photographers. They’re emblematic of one side of the debate, where all unauthorized use is immoral. I recently saw the other side in action, when I attended Wikimania 2012. I went to the debate on whether fair use should always or never be used in Wikipedia. This is quite a hot discussion topic, actually, on the Talk pages of Wikipedia. It was interesting to see the heated emotion displayed, primarily by users (the pro-fair use side was staffed by lawyers, who tended not to get passionate), on the side of the argument that said it should never be used. There are some practical difficulties (will downstream users really understand that they can’t remix that stuff without doing an assessment of their own? will laws in other countries match up with U.S. fair use?) but the biggest obstacle, it seemed, was a profound disgust with copyright as an unfree regime. Even though copyright permits unlicensed use, that right was not seen as a right so much as a begrudging permission by an ungenerous uncle. They saw it as besmirching a beautiful product, beautiful because it was free.

The problem is, though, that the mission of Wikipedia is to be a free encyclopedia of human knowledge, not–as Brandon Butler on the panel put it–an encyclopedia of free human knowledge. He argued that including copyrighted material when it was necessary to make mission was sensible, even if it had to be employed under fair use. Respondents argued that leaving blank spaces clearly labelled to show unavailability because of copyright reasons was consistent with the mission to be free and also a lesson in the costs of having copyright.

Is there a way to get out of this mess? One way is to recognize the truths that Ellen is pointing to–that the business model issue is separate from the copyright issue. The business model issue is very real. Traditional media business models are eroding, which affects vast swaths of middle managers. At the same time, the industry’s business model crisis interacts with a trend that has been accumulating particular strength since 1980 and the conservative resurgence, to disempower workers. The business model crisis creates an incentive to further exploit working people in media, especially the newest entrants. It is heartening, however, to note that even as incumbent businesses flounder, the total revenues for entertainment fields are growing, according to the impressive and extensively documented report, “The Sky Is Rising” (http://www.techdirt.com/skyisrising/).

Those who are frustrated by copyright sometimes turn to a copyleft alternative model. I don’t think constructing some alternate world, for instance, getting everybody to agree to give their stuff away with Creative Commons licenses, will work.. I think too much stuff will never go into the commons; you’ll never persuade the photographers, much less HBO, to give it away. Too much significant work in our culture–including the stuff that makes up some of the most memorable remixes and fan fiction–is made on commercial terms. Moreover, many, many people are actually really invested in having their copyright monopoly rights. I also agree with Ellen that it’s important to think about how to reward the actual makers of work. I use Creative Commons licensed work in my own, and I have Creative Commons licenses on some of my work, but I see it as a limited, if important, tool in the kit of resources to rebalance copyright.

I do see a big change in the communities of practice that have created codes of best practices in fair use. I’ve seen a big change in how creators think about what they want to do. I’ve seen changes in industry practice, e.g. how insurers for errors and omissions now treat fair use claims. Perhaps most exciting to me has been to see people who reclaim their own fair use rights come to see those rights as rights worthy of political defense. I’ve seen people who in previous years didn’t even know they had fair use rights go to the Copyright Office, ask for an exemption for their group of people (professors, documentary filmmakers, vidders) from the DMCA’s criminal penalties for breaking encryption for fair use, and…..win! Admittedly that’s not a game changer for the copyright regime, but an accommodation within a terrible law. But it is evident that people can see themselves as part of a political constituency.

We wrote the book precisely to contribute to reframing the discussion, away from an emotionally laden moral discussion toward a discussion of how we can get to the job of creating more culture better. I think when people move from a “permissions culture” to a position of agency, that is a political move, and it enables them to think about these and other issues from a more collective viewpoint, which should also encourage association and union participation.

I have seen that when you show people the consequences of their actions, they understand much better what risks they are taking. Suddenly the risk of not creating culture, not getting to create, to express, to use their freedom of speech, becomes significant and real to them. The risk of getting sued for copyright infringement becomes a risk you can calculate instead of, as one filmmaker called it, “the monster in the closet.” They can see the risks the same way they see risks in other employment of their First Amendment rights. After all, libel, treason, obscenity laws all have ugly penalties, and they all are triggered by inappropriate First Amendment acts. That doesn’t stop people from criticizing fat cats or crooked cops or using terms for female body parts while discussing reproductive health. And when people see copyright within that First Amendment lens, the discussion is very different.

I wish I had stronger faith in legislative or judicial options at the moment, but without having a mobilized and sizeable constituency, I’m afraid I don’t. At the moment. I am impressed at what a difference practice makes, and I think practice can shape the building of constituency. I think we saw what a difference the blacking out of Wikipedia made to SOPA/PIPA. There had been a lot of crucial inside-the-Beltway work done on those shockingly poorly crafted bills before that moment, so I don’t want to act like Wikipedia brought them down. But Wikipedia and other blacked-out sites did make a difference. And the action taught a lot of people in that ambit the power of numbers of outraged citizens. Wikipedia’s leaders are mildly alarmed by the precedent set, though. SOPA/PIPA would directly and negatively have affected Internet culture, and so it was squarely within Wikipedia’s wheelhouse. Wikipedia’s leaders (both Jimmy Wales and the head counsel of Wikipedia spoke about this) are worried that Wikimedians may decide to use this tactic on issues that are not specifically a life threat to Wikipedia itself, which would jeopardize the foundation’s tax status, could weaken the organization by creating factions, and be ineffective to boot. So I don’t think that one act has a natural next one within Wikipedia. But it clearly educated a lot of Wikimedians and Wikipedia users about political action.

As we look at the current struggles over intellectual property, it seems that commercial producers and grassroots participants (for lack of better terms as these relationships are somewhat shifting) look at these debates through different lens. So, first, what do we see as the primary concerns, fears, anxieties, hopes of copyright holders in these struggles to define what constitutes appropriate policy?

Ellen: Copyright holders are attentive to their specific markets. Take the case of a viral sensation of the summer of 2012: The Snuggie version of Beyonce’s song “Countdown.”

Here is an amateur video, performed and directed by a teenager (who is a shining example of how much people can learn and achieve in DIY media) using a major pop song. But he is also a member of the target market for pop divas: and this market segment is more likely than others to go ahead and purchase the music download, buy the CD and go to the concert. So there is a motivation to be lenient and even to use amateur videos to publicize the songs, both because they don’t want to alienate this market– which has been performing pop hits in bedrooms before mirrors for decades–and because they are not at risk in the same way of losing all sales.

There are varying levels of policing and it is important to look at the cases where DIY media is welcomed (this was formerly the case with anime distribution, as Mimi Ito’s work has so effectively demonstrated) and there is a kind of tacit agreement that you do your part as a consumer.

So Beyonce posts the Snuggie video on her website and calls it brilliant and better than the original. No word from Snuggie yet, although they must be delighted.

Pat: It’s great to remember, as Ellen reminds us, that there are endless accommodations by businesses to their best interests in practice. In terms of creating new policy formally, I think that incumbent corporations with significant revenues from media have a deer-in-the-headlights approach at the moment. Copyright policy is one tool they have to resist the future. On the other hand, everybody saw what happened to the music industry, and nobody wants to be Kodak, so that may shift the vigor of their approach to shoring up their assets with even more extended copyright terms and stiffer penalties for perceived infringement and technical overrides of fair use. Maybe. But actually in DC there is strong expectation that we will see a bill introduced fairly soon extending copyright terms….again. And SOPA/PIPA haven’t really gone away.

I think makers and users of all kinds have a different set of concerns, which I’ve discussed above in part. Many people have a Romantic notion of creativity, in which originality is prized, copying is regarded as cheating, and creativity is produced at a high personal psychic cost. That infuses how they then think about copyright.

This is true both for the copyrightists and the copyleft, actually. Artists often construe themselves as fearless appropriators and then are outraged at unauthorized reuse of their work, even when it’s clearly fair use. The copyleft community is, I think, an early adopter phenomenon rather than the beginning of a dominant “commoner” culture. As more and more people create digitally, I don’t see new waves of copyleft people; rather, I see sudden interest in figuring out how to claim and exercise monopoly rights, concern about unfair commercialization of one’s work, etc. Even within the copyleft, there is great anxiety about inappropriate (e.g. commercial) use of their work.

This Romantic construction of creativity (about which my co-author Peter Jaszi has written quite a bit, and very interestingly) is often exploited by corporate actors in lobbying.

At the same time, people are definitely enjoying, in greater and greater numbers, the kind of remixing (machinima, video remixes, all kinds of photographic memes) that used to be much harder to do. This group of people is now much much bigger than the geeky early adopters. So they’re getting a greater stake in accessing the copyrighted world around them. I can see corporate efforts to meet that appetite with new forms of licensing and apps, but these efforts aren’t moving quickly enough. Copyright law really makes more streamlined licensing rather difficult. But I do wonder if the perceived needs of many people who are not ideologically motivated when they remix and do DIY culture will be met with some kind of inferior (to me, certainly) licensed service. That certainly is true now with a lot of machinima, which is often done within the terms the game company set.

So I think this is an exciting moment in which people might be able to move beyond their (often new-found) frustration with their access to copyrighted culture, productively, if they understand the basis of copyright better. And they would become part of a political constituency for a more balanced copyright, not just for easier access to licensed databases provided on company terms.

Pat Aufderheide is the Co-Director of the Center for Social Media and University Professor in the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. She is the co-author with Peter Jaszi of Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright (University of Chicago Press, July 2011), and author of, among others, Documentary: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2007), The Daily Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), and of Communications Policy in the Public Interest (Guilford Press, 1999). She heads the Fair Use and Free Speech research project at the Center, in conjunction with Prof. Peter Jaszi in American University’s Washington College of Law.

Ellen Seiter holds the Nenno Endowed Chair in Television Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts where she teaches courses on television and new media history, theory and criticism in the Critical Studies Division. She is the author of The Internet Playground: Children’s Access, Entertainment and Mis-Education (Peter Lang, 2005), Television and New Media Audiences (Oxford, 1999), Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture (Rutgers, 1993) and Remote Control; Television, Audiences and Cultural Power (Routledge, 1989). Her latest book, The Creative Artist’s Legal Guide:Copyright, Trademark and Contracts in Film and Digital Media Production was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.