Arts Under Pressure, Playing with the right to challenge copyright

Arts Under Pressure, Playing with the right to challenge copyright*

What would the world be like without copyright? A world where culture and art develop freely, a world where people involved earn their freedom and bucks – a better world, says Professor Joost Smiers.

Without copyright, he says, arts and cultures would develop more rapidly and freely. The oligarchical copyright practices of the arts world, in books, films and music should be reduced, he says.

Smiers, now a professor emeritus at Utrecht School of the Arts, Netherlands, questions the effectiveness of using economic arguments to justify copyright, the rationale that protecting the right of the artist fuels their creativity.

Art blurs the notion of originality as artistic creations draw upon inspiration from many different sources. The protection that copyright grants is becoming obsolete in a world where technology has made the sharing of information so easy and fast, especially in the field of music and film.

Despite the importance of art in human development, most artists, with the exception of big names, do not appreciate copyright. Instead, it is the middleman who benefits, Smiers said. He suggests artists take the risk of believing in the goodness of human nature and begin distributing their art themselves.

“You cannot ask everyone to pay. If you are busking, for example, only some people will offer money,” he said during a talk last month at Erasmus Huis in South Jakarta.

This method indeed has been proven to work in some cases in the online world. Many open source programs run on donations, while more and more new artists have made their debut on video viewing websites like Youtube.

An open source blog publishing the application WordPress is run free for millions of users. One of WordPress creators, Matt Mullenweg, on his visit to Jakarta recently said he did not make any money from the blog, but from the extra services it provided. He did not even keep track of how many languages the application was translated into.

“I didn’t know there was a Sundanese version. I am not aware of every language the service has been translated into. This is done by people in their own countries,” he said. It was made possible because of the shared coding.

That kind of practice is one Smiers says shows the possibility of creativity and financial reward working hand in hand.

The limitation through copyright, Smiers says, comes at the price of “hindering social and cultural development, when the public domain of knowledge and creativity is neglected”.

Conglomeration has ridden on copyright and has reduced the variety of art on the market. He highlights the trend of the few big corporations that dominate vast amounts of artistic output worldwide, in books, music and film.

“No so long ago, editors used to decide what books would be published. This changed radically in large companies where power shifted to so-called publishing committees, where financial and marketing staff play pivotal roles. Profit margins for book publishers used to be around 2 percent. The demand now is for 15 percent,” he said.

“The consequence is that small print-runs are out of the question, and, that some books considered culturally important will never be published. The risks publishers took in former times because their loved books will no longer be covered by the profits from other books,” he adds.

Smiers admits that more thought-provoking ideas should be generated by artists in overcoming these problems.

The book provides a mind-boggling critical view about the current practice of copyright, which can be extended to other forms of protection like patents, and urges readers to think about other possible solutions.

“The book is still a work in progress. I will keep updating it,” he said firmly to The Jakarta Post.

*The Jakarta Post, Sun, May 03 2009.

*Books by Jooost Smiers published in Indonesian: Arts Under Pressure: Memperjuangkan Keanekaragaman Budaya di Era Globalisasi (INSISTPress, 2009).