A turning point: is professional creativity under threat?

There has been a lot going on, and I have been keeping my thoughts to myself. For the most part, it’s a bit depressing.

The UK government (PDF link) is still seeking to change the law so that new exceptions (aka appropriations) to copyright can be introduced whimsically by politicians without bothering to trouble parliament for a discussion first.

The wrong-headedness of this is obvious to anyone who understands how copyright works, and thank goodness it is being challenged legally by Thomson Reuters and others.

Then the French threw in the towel in their Google challenge. Having started the fight, perhaps unwisely, on a point of principle, they have given it up, utterly feebly, thanks to Google waving a cheque around. Not even a big cheque (about 14 hours of revenue for Google, I reckon – and given that they said the original proposal was a “threat to their very existence” that’s a bargain by anyone’s reckoning).

They have ended up in a situation even worse than the status quo they were challenging. The money won’t last long but the legacy of a crippled business model will continue indefinitely. They would have been much better off simply withdrawing their content.

Now, extraordinarily, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that copyright itself is illegal. Well, sort of. They seem to be saying that in many cases it is trumped by human rights law. A sort of general exception to copyright, bigger and broader than any dreamed up by even the most moronic and wilful governments.

It all seems to be getting a bit out of hand. What started as a ridiculous demonisation of copyright by people with a vested interest in being able to use other people’s stuff for free (and, in the process, grow to be among the biggest and richest companies in the world) has gone through the phase of being taken seriously by craven, populist and dim-witted politicians into a sort of orthodoxy which pervades legislative and judicial thinkers.

It’s important for everyone to step back, when they’re thinking about copyright, and consider what it’s really all about. It’s not about media corporations, monopolies, ripping off consumers, interfering with freedom of expression or otherwise damaging the cultural or economic interests of society and individuals.

At its heart, it’s about enabling people with the talent, energy and motivation to make a living from being creative.

If their work – your work maybe – effectively becomes common property as soon as its created, it’s going to make professional creativity – already in decline in many sectors – an even more perilous and penniless career choice.

We’re not there yet. Creative work isn’t quite common property. But the ability to control it, commercially and otherwise, is being chipped away at.

The UK government wants to be able to give people a right to use your stuff, whether you like it or not, whenever they feel like it.

The ECHR says that sharing your work can sometimes amount to a human right, more important than any rights you might have.

The French government, having actually stood up for its creative sector and pointed the finger at the legality and fairness of what Google do, threw their concerns aside in return for a trivial sum of money and a fleeting moment of ego-puffery for their president.

It’s not clear where the counterbalancing opportunity is going to come from. Creativity in all its forms has been one of the most revered and important facets of our society, and its most accomplished practitioners have earned respect and wealth in proportion to their achievements, and it has spawned a huge cultural and economic sector driven by the simple connection of popular success to reward.

Thanks to governments, courts and huge industrial opponents, the reward is going to be harder to come by in the future. What impact will that have on the creativity?


(updated 10th February 2013)

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