The epic debate between Lawrence Lessig and Jack Valenti is another opportunity for me to get up to speed on my contemporary American history and the First Amendment. The debate is difficult to follow, and I was grateful to read a transcript. I see the value of both protecting IP in the capitalist market and allowing open experimentation to promote creativity. It’s funny, because people will create regardless of the constraints they encounter.
For example, if I write a book, I don’t want someone plagiarizing my work. My book is a result of many long hours of work and my abilities to craft a story or a thesis. I would want to be acknowledged and/or remunerated for my work. But I would also want people to share my book with other people. Perhaps I wouldn’t see payment for every copy of my work that circulates, but through sharing, more people would see my work and read about my ideas. Sharing would hopefully increase my popularity and influence, which may lead to more contracts in the future.
This is where IP protection is important, to ensure artists and creators receive recognition for their products. Looking at the tradition of storytelling, in some cultures, you have to be given permission to tell another person’s story. We can see IP protection as an extension of this honoring of ownership and preventing stealing. On the flip side, I also believe that once I own something, such as a book, I should be free to use it as I wish, such as giving that copy to whomever I choose. If I buy a vinyl album, I should be able to make a digital copy to play on my computer. Free, reasonable use is fair, plagiarism and stealing is not, and it is obvious the distinction is still not clear. It is interesting, however, to see how these rules around sharing content have resulted in interesting innovation opportunities, such as streaming services, cloud-based readers and free software that decouple content from devices. It’s important to remember that as an artist, I always have a choice to choose media that is not conducive to pirating.
Where I see copyright law as dangerous is when it goes after small, independent creatives that have a good idea to make a modest profit, but are squashed by large corporations. I have a hard time seeing how the Consumer Whore logo hurt the Starbucks brand, in fact, I would argue that it gave Starbucks even more exposure in the market. And what if my book inspired someone to write another story or craft another thesis, such as The Wind Done Gone was written in response to Gone with the Wind? Inspiration has a long history, and we understand now that creativity is often a result of a mash up of existing ideas, opinions and patterns of the past. The artist is not an independent genius who creates in a culture vacuum, but is a product of their environment who often creates on the shoulders of her teachers. I think this is where lessons about homage are integral in arts and in business.
People will be creative in spite of, and literally using, the constraints you give them, and copyright laws have created fertile ground. Look at Typekit. The entire business exists because of typeface copyright laws, to ensure that type designers receive fair payment for their work. Type design is a laborious skilled craft, and typefaces are expensive (arguably not as expensive as they should be). Since the advent of digital typography, pirating typefaces has been rampant. Typekit developed a technology that splits and recombines typefaces on the fly, preventing pirating. Web designers lease the typefaces as a service, ensuring type designers get paid. Clever solution. Keep in mind, however, the entire system would freeze if someone copyrighted the basic anatomy of the alphabet. Typeface design is built on a history of homages of the typefaces that came before.