Adieu Copyright – A debate

CopyrightLast Wednesday one of Holland’s most famous and disputed anti-copyright defendants, Joost Smiers, presented his new book (or essay) co-written with partner-in-crime Marieke van Schijndel, at cultural hot-spot De Balie (a former courthouse in Amsterdam). Surrounding the presentation a debate evening was organized based on the utopian notion of ‘imagining a world without copyright’. The essay, entitled Adieu auteursrecht, vaarwel culturele conglomeraten (Goodbye copyright, farewell cultural conglomerates) was presented to economist Arjo Klamer.  Klamer gave a sparkling speech – setting the tone for the following discussion – by claiming that Smiers and Van Schijndel’s essay was just not radical enough. By referring to well known numbers (10% of the cultural producers claim 90% of the remits) and hopelessly cumbersome and complicated processes of IPR regulations, upholdings and claimings, Klamer wondered why we even have such a system. He went on to systematically explain how property right is closely intermingled with a product, an object one can trade. This proprietary right is the basis of our market thinking. This market can only function through the merits of a state that enforces this proprietary right. Klamer calls this a conspiracy between the market and the state. He explains that in the utopian thinking of Smiers and Van Schijndel, the abolition of copyright serves mainly to break down the power of the large cultural conglomerates that control the cultural market in order to encourage a fairer system of competition. They claim this would be more democratic, will encourage free communication and will be beneficial for our cultural life.

arjoklamerKlamer wants to go even further. He claims that the authors still grasp too much to the idea of music and art as products. Klamer questions the whole idea of cultural products and product oriented thinking. He claims the way we look at these cultural artifacts or expressions as products is a simple metaphor for our ability to buy them. But artistic expressions are no products, they are ‘words’, they only get their ‘meaning’ when they are uttered, they function in a larger context and in this way are dependent on us, the ‘utterers’, the consumers, the potential readers. His starting point is not the product but the metaphor of the conversation [the term discourse to me sounds even better]. Art is a conversation, music is a conversation, science is a conversation. Nobody owns a conversation; it can be compared with friendship [also an inalienable, tangible good]. A conversation is a good people share together in a community, you cannot enforce it (not even the state), you cannot steel it and you cannot free-ride on it; and it is based on the principle of reciprocity [think of the gift economy about which I will write some more in the future].

But money comes into this system too. Klamer calls this the third sphere, the ‘in-between sphere’. Science still functions like this to a large extent. The scientific community works from the common understanding that knowledge is something we all share, science is the conversation we all build upon. Who owns an idea? Even Nobel Prize winners base their ideas on endless conversations with others. IPR does not do right to this conversation and to the quality of the conversation. In science this problem is solved by the providing of services (Klamer gives the example how in the US many artists have a position at the university were they teach and work. There art work is seen as a kind of service to the community in which art is ‘less commercialized’). Klamer’s final statement: leave the state and the market for what they are and let’s acknowledge cultural expressions for their true value, which is much better realized or finalized in the social space, the ‘third space’ in which communal goods reign. This is the sphere we want to contribute to, from which we can get acknowledgement and establish reputation. For the real and true scarce good is attention. This is what distinguishes the one from the other nine, both in science and in art. This is not a fair system and it will never be a fair system. And this unfairness lies not in the power and the influence of the cultural conglomerates, Klamer states, attacking Smiers and Van Schijndel’s premise; the scarcity of attention is a social phenomenon. This scarcity is also exactly what can be liquidated (see for instance how Damien Hirst plays with this notion). This is not to say that the market and the state should rule this world, and in this sense Klamer states the presented essay is still of the utmost importance. Cultural life exists in the third sphere and is realized in (this) community with others, people who feel committed to a bigger interest instead of in the creation of a product for their own profit. Reciprocity, conversation and attention: that is what this sphere is all about. 

Joost_SmiersAfter Arjo Klamer finished his speech, Joost Smiers gave a short exposition of the book. He stated that with the abolishment of copyright the market will no longer function as radical around the numbers of one and ten: the public will be much more able to follow their own taste [ignoring the fact I think that the long tail maybe does not exist as recent research has contested]. Smiers does however throw away notions like Creative Commons, stating that they no longer merit the ownership of products and this is an issue he does not want to discuss. He does not believe we should do away with the ownership of cultural goods [on a side note, I feel Smiers is conflating Creative Commons licenses, which are alternative copyright license and thus still centre around the notion of ownership, with the more radical parts of the free culture and free information movement. They are interlinked but not the same!]. Smiers asked the question what will happen to the market once we abolish copyright, how will the market function? He strongly believes entrepreneurial people will be needed in such a new system and this will offer opportunities for those who are active. 

In the first debate Annelys de Vet (graphic designer at the Sandberg Institute) and Nirav Christophe (lector theatrical creation processes and open dramaturgy) engaged with each other and the public. De Vet argued that copyright is a closed manner of handling things; it is a standstill opposed to an open movement. Artists don’t design products, they create processes in a context of processual design in which they are part of a larger whole. Artists don’t quote; they are part of a dialogue or a conversation. Copyright is based on a world of fear where she wants to work and collaborate in a world based on trust. Christophe concurs that theater is foremost a dialogue and thus serves as a good metaphor for the evenings debate. For theatre is always a half-product: as a theater writer your play only comes into existence once it is finished by others. A theatre writer is used to people making adaptations to his texts, making their own interpretations; it makes the texts better. Theatre does not create products, it creates processes. Christophe states that copyright is foremost also a philosophical problem. What is the relationship of the author to his text? Is the text yours? Since Roland Barthes and the death of the author it is no longer maintainable that texts produced by an author are the possession of that author. Only the experience of them being read or uttered, the interaction, makes them come alive. A cultural experience is only created during a certain amount of time in a process that is often created together with others, even together with the public. 

Creative CommonsDe Vet thus concludes that art should be seen as a dialogue, as a process. The oeuvre of an artist consists of all kinds of different moments, in which the links between these moments create the meaning and this is not linkable back to a product. There is so much pressure on artists nowadays to be original, and so much fear to appropriate, to copy. Yet De Vet encourages this, it will still be different, it will always be used in a different context, it will follow another trajectory. Being unique and signing your work can go hand in hand with the above attitude, they are not each others opposites. Many people are involved in the creation of a design; design is about the creation of a dialogue. Copyright has no relevance in this process, claims De Vet. Christophe concurs and states this is a more realistic view of the modern artist than the romantic 19th century conception of the individual performer. De Vet and Christophe see the economic difficulties of their notions but are up to the challenge of thinking in different ways. 

Questions from the audience phrased the fear of plagiarism: what if one copies or steals my work? What if I get ‘screwed over’? As we know from the debate between Habermas and Foucault, conversations are not always open and honest. This is a way to idealist stance. De Vet  replied that no system is perfect, in a 1 to10 system people are ‘screwed over’ too. She wants to keep a positive stance based on trust.  Media sociologist Jaap van Ginneken replied by stating that under the current copyright system Walt Disney steals everything and then patents it again as its own. Even the Lion King is an adaptation of a Japanese story. So big business seems very efficient in screwing you over too. Joost Smiers remarked that for wrongful appropriation (for instance by a fascist regime) you have alternative laws, you do not need copyright for that. Next to that a system of shaming will probably develop. Other mechanisms will thus develop to maintain the system

A depiction of Thomas More's Utopia by Ambrosius Holstein

In the second debate we met Hans Abbing, emeritus professor in art sociology and Jan-Willem Sligting, programmer at Paradiso and musician. Sligting remarked that copyright is such a different concept where it covers multiple domains, from law to philosophy and economy. Referring to Thomas More and Utopia, he states that a world without copyright will unfortunately just be that: an utopia. But Abbing dives into this make believe world, stating the time is ripe: copyright is increasingly contested online and the current economic crisis urges for the need of equal playing fields. First of all it will improve the situation of artists, where their incomes while become more equal. But most of all the consumer will benefit. There will be more space for diversity and niches. But Abbing also doubts this fantasy. Diversity is not inherently connected to copyright. A society can only handle a certain amount of diversity: you cannot know the details of everything. We need to trust on others, on selection, our attention span is always crooked. The consumer wants selection and we shouldn’t trust too much on the premise of ‘small is beautiful’. And what about that level playing field? How does this relate to different regions on a world scale? We also need big corporations. We should just as well fear social monopolies. Don’t underestimate the power of funders for instance.

Klamer still emphasizes the benefits of contributing to something that is bigger than you. In science and religion the financing is done by way of gifts (gift economy), which according to him is a very valuable system as we are reimbursed for our services. According to Abbing however, gifts only work in small societies on a personal level. Gifts on the Internet will never have a real shape, this will not work according to him. 

Sligting however mentions initiatives like Fabchannel and SellaBand which have business models which are centered on the community. Abbing states that there are a lot of experiments going on but that they need to be based on reciprocity, people will not just donate something, and they want to feel connected to a cause. Simple commercial artifacts (t-shirts, stickers) already help a lot.

sellaband by Josh CochranArjo Klamer remarks that science is also totally based on reciprocity: services for reputation. There is however a fierce strive for recognition in this field. This situation is very similar to the independent arts; Klamer claims that such a reciprocal model will be very well applicable to this sector too. Using copyright in this realm is abnormal, it does not work like that in other cultures and it should thus not be norm giving. We need to be more creative with how we establish value. Think about the potential of deluxe editions.

Comments from the crowd focused on the elitism of the debate: not all art is equal, the 1/10 rule is there for a reason, simply because not all works are good. We also need to discuss quality in this context. With a final statement Joost Smiers ended the debate, using the scientific metaphor of the paradigm shift: if a model no longer works we need another one. A world without copyright is not imaginary. We need to break through this dominance to establish a more normal and competitive market in which more people will earn more money. Smiers’ goal is to support this notion with hard figures. It is not an utopia. Smiers wants to create alternative business models and will keep developing them in the future. 

My feeling about the evening was that from a theoretical point of view it hopelessly complicated matters and on a practical level didn’t offer any solutions. Although the debate an sich was very interesting, I think the attack on the big conglomerates by Smiers and Van Schijndel should not be the primary goal of the abolishment of copyright. I feel the fierce attacks on the state and the market that were uttered during the evening (notwithstanding the fact that their powers and reach might actually be too large) unnecessarily complicated the issue, and made it more disputed than it already is. Compare the debate between Lawrence Lessig and Kevin Kelly in which Kelly compared Web 2.0 with socialism (I agree with Lessig in this matter).

74366682HO003_skullEven if we accept the notion of art as a process and dialogue, this does not mean we have to do away with the big companies and commercialization. Making money with their work, in what way they deem fit is still a free choice of creative producers, and commercialization of an experience economy, more akin to the processual and fluxual nature of the current art procedure, is already well on its way. This is why I applaud initiatives like Fabchannel, SellaBand and also Creative Commons, who, on an alternative note, try to create new business models based on sharing, community and reciprocity. Without loosing the option to liquidize these created values. This criticism connects to that of the confused public, which during the evening continually begged for practical solutions and did not receive any. The debate remained too theoretical on many levels, without offering truly new potentials. And doing away with initiatives like Creative Commons, that in a very practical manner try to do something refreshing with the whole IPR problem, to me seems just stupid. The total lack of references to new business models by Smiers and Van Schijndel was also very disappointing. Maybe the practical solutions can be found in their book, however, it is not available Open Access on the net and unfortunately, after this evening, I felt neither compelled nor convinced to buy the book. Felt kind of like a lost chance….


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