Copyright has increasingly been subjected to public debate. Two weeks before the last UK general election, in May 2015, the Green Party, unwittingly, brought copyright to the attention of certain members of the electorate. The Green Party is a left-leaning, Green, political party with one MP in the House of commons (out of 650 MPs) and 3.8% share of the vote. On 22 April 2015, scrutiny began over one of the points in the party’s policy. This scrutiny appeared to have started on social media through discussions amongst illustrators and writers – many of whom self- identified as green party supporters or at least sympathised with their policies.
The party’s policy at the centre of the discussion was to “introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years”. On 23 April 2015, several newspapers picked up on the social media debate and reported that authors and illustrators were shocked and alarmed with the Green Party’s policy: it would be an “appalling injustice” if this shorter copyright term were to come to effect. There was some confusion, as to what the Green party meant by the policy – did they mean a shorter term of 14 years after publishing or, the longer interpretation ie 14 years after the death of the author, the latter many authors appeared to be less dissatisfied with. After some to and fro, Caroline Lucas, their only MP, admitted that the party had ‘got it wrong’ and had agreed to review its policy on copyright.
The traditional news media coverage ended and this was seen as a resolution of sorts. But what is interesting is that – actually the battle about legitimacy of the authors’ beliefs about the importance of copyright duration in their writing lives continued. Through online ethnography, it emerged that the discussion amongst authors and illustrators continued on social media even after the traditional news media coverage died. In these discussions, the duration of copyright protection simply became a launch pad for a debate on the role of copyright. There were attacks on creators that suggested they should do some ‘work’ to earn a living, or that copyright is only a means for publishing houses to make money, some suggested that writers don’t earn much as they had seen it reported in newspapers and jumped to the conclusion that as such copyright is irrelevant for them. There were misunderstandings and misgivings about how copyright functions, and also much trolling! These social media discussions served to highlight the bewilderment and frustration of many creators as to the general lack of understanding today about the role of copyright in creative worlds and, how authors make a living. Some creators even saw this as hostile public perception about artists having any rights or having a choice about how they make a living.
Some may consider these frustrations of authors rather surprising, since the “creative industries” have been accused of aggressively justifying the role and importance of copyright in the digital era. But what this story suggests is that voices and perspectives of individual creators on how they exploit copyright, or not exploit copyright, and how they navigate the current economic and technological realities to make a living, have not have been adequately understood. And this incident is just example that highlights the importance of capturing and reflecting the perspectives and interests of the individual creator in debates about copyright today.
In the ‘Individual Creators’ project, which is investigating the interaction between copyright and the everyday life of creative practitioners, I have been examining the following research questions and focussing on the creators’ perspectives:
- What is the role of copyright in the day to day practice of creative practitioners, and how is it changing? Are their views changing in relation to it and why?
- What is the actual as well as perceived value of copyright from the creators’ point of view?
- How are meanings and beliefs regarding copyright being shaped and how do such meanings, beliefs, and experiences regarding copyright ultimately shape the various contours of creators’ practices?
In recent months, I have shared the story above, as well as, early findings from the interview and observation data collected in the project, at a number of recent events:
- ‘Copyright and Individual Creators: Preliminary Findings from an Empirical Study’ presented at Law and Society Association Annual Meeting, Seattle, USA, 2015
- ‘Life on other Worlds: Creators and Copyright’ presented at GikII, Berlin, 2015
- ‘Creators and copyright: Voices from the field’ presented at Friction and Fiction: IP, Copyright and Digital Futures, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 2015
- ‘It feels like I am always hustling, constantly hustling!: Creators, copyright and business models’ presented at the Global Congress on Intellectual Property & The Public Interest, New Delhi, 2015
Slides from one such presentation can be found here.