September 2nd, 2011
NOTE: In this blog entry, I frequently use the word "artwork" to refer to all types of intellectual properties---including non-fiction works such as essays and textbooks, even though these are not typically thought of as creative endeavors. I'll also refer to the people who create artwork as "artists" or "creators" interchangeably.
In the process of writing these blog entries, I have had a bit of an epiphany about copyright law. I came to the realization that ideas and artworks are inherently free.
Can ideas and artwork be owned?
On one level, I mean "free" in the sense that ideas or artworks are autonomous. Although the word "autonomous" may seem like a strange word to apply to an artwork, I think it's the appropriate term to use here. Ideas or artworks are autonomous because they exist independently from the individuals or institutions who create them. After having been brought into existence, ideas or artworks take on a life of their own. (There are even some theorists who make an intriguing argument that ideas have something akin to a will of their own.) The influence of a particular idea or artwork will ripple throughout society in unpredictable and unquantifiable ways---and in ways that the idea's creator perhaps never intended nor could they control. For that matter, many ideas or artworks will, in fact, outlive their creator.
Because artworks are inherently free and autonomous (in the sense that they exist independently of their creators), when we apply copyright law to an artwork we are imposing a socially-constructed system of ownership onto it. The artificiality of this system is being made more clear by the Internet. For one, it is beginning to challenge and redefine our previous conceptions of what it means to possess an artwork. Text, images, music and movies can be downloaded and shared endlessly by everyone in this new digital age. It's theoretically possible that a digital copy of an artwork could be shared until it is in everyone's possession.
For example, an individual can physically own the original canvas of Van Gogh's Starry Night. They can hang it on their living room wall where no one can see it. Or they can lend it to a gallery where some of the lucky people who are in the same geographical area can see it on display. In the 20th century, we developed color printing processes that made it so someone could take a photograph of Starry Night and publish it in a book; this made it so that a person thousands of miles away from the physical painting could go to a library and look at it. And now we live in this incredible era where, thanks to the Internet, I can put a picture of it right here on my personal blog for you:
Anyone who comes to this web page can look at it. Anyone can conceivably click on the picture and download it to their own hard drive. After downloading it, anyone can put this picture up on their own blog---or they can even print it out and put it on their own living room wall. And they can transform Starry Night, turning it into a mosaic or a necklace or acrylic nails or a chair, etc. etc. etc. Maybe some people might find these transformations kitschy, but I find them marvelous. I see tremendous value in transformative creativity and I think we do ourselves a disservice when we dismiss it as derivative or as a corruption of the original.
If anyone could view Starry Night through the Internet and if anyone can possess it by downloading it to their hard drive, then who really owns it? Is it Van Gogh, even though he isn't alive any more? Is it the New York Museum of Modern Art, who actually owns the physical painting? Or does Starry Night belong to everyone who has a digital copy sitting on their hard drive right at this moment? When you begin to think about it this way, it's easy to see how the Internet is making the traditional conception of ownership much more fuzzy, indefinable, and problematic.
Can we really put a price tag on the value of an idea or artwork?
Ideas and artworks are also inherently free in a financial sense because their market value can never come close to reflecting their actual social value. It's not that intellectual properties aren't worthwhile. (On the contrary, they are tremendously valuable.) It's not that intellectual properties can't or shouldn't be bought or sold. (Because they can---and perhaps they should.)
Rather, I'm arguing that ideas and artwork transcend market values because their true social value is unquantifiable. It's impossible to know what an idea or artwork is worth because the influence of one idea or one artwork can ripple throughout society so subtly that it's virtually undetectable or untraceable. For that reason, it is impossible to quantify the worth of ideas or artworks because they are essentially priceless. Even "bad" ideas, for example, can be tremendously valuable because they can be the vehicle through which we discover a better ideas. (Einstein's theory of relativity was only made possible by Newton's short-sighted or limited conceptions of physics, after all.) Therefore, it's a somewhat futile task to try to assign a market value to an artwork because it can never reflect its actual worth.
On a more practical level, the Internet has directly challenged our ability to put a price on ideas or artwork. Using bit-torrent sites and peer-to-peer exchanges, anyone can conceivably download nearly every book, audiobook, song, or movie that exists in digital form without paying a single cent for them. When a person downloads a pirated copy of an artwork, they are not directly hurting the artist the way a shoplifter directly hurts a store by reducing its inventory. Unlike the stolen item from the store, the file still exists for others who want to buy it (or pirate it).
Rather, piracy hurts an artist by reducing the chances that record labels and movie studios will risk investing in their creative projects in the future. The initial investment required to produce the artwork was made in the past. Because the production costs have already been spent, these costs will not be affected by consumer purchases in the present. However, the initial investment will not be recouped if people don't buy the music or movie. And if the investment is not recouped, then production companies will not continue to finance that artist's future creative projects. So, piracy is a different kind of theft altogether because it's potentially stealing from the future: the future production of worthwhile ideas. But, yes, I did use that word "potential" on purpose.
I'm still not done with this blog series yet. Stay tuned to my future blog entry when I hope to trace the intellectual history of our contemporary ideas of ownership and copyright law---and how it may actually have its roots in imperialism (and racism).