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The Bard and the Internet

February 18th, 2011 by jacob

There was a great op-ed on the front page of the New York Times website earlier this week, that asked one very interesting question.  How would 17th century Dramatist’s (Shakespeare, Marlowe, et al.) survive in the internet age of piracy,  or more specifically could they survive?  The Op-Ed also made several points about the way that copyright law worked to the benefit of writers and creative types going all the way back the Elizabethan theatre explosion, and that’s where I take fault with their argument.

They state:

“They are abetted by a handful of law professors and other experts who have made careers of fashioning counterintuitive arguments holding that copyright impedes creativity and progress. Their theory is that if we severely weaken copyright protections, innovation will truly flourish. It’s a seductive thought, but it ignores centuries of scientific and technological progress based on the principle that a creative person should have some assurance of being rewarded for his innovative work.”

The authors of the Op-Ed argue that strong copyright laws allow writers and creative folk to reap the benefits of the open market.   Of course this is true.  Strong intellectual property laws do allow artists the ability to sell their works at fair market prices, but then the Authors go on to state that strong intellectual property laws, and creative people’s strong ties to commerce that drive innovation and creation.  Certainly the prospect of financial gain is a great driver of innovation, but robust copyright law might also stifle creativity.

All works are derivative.  The best artists in the world steal ideas, and steal unapologeticaly.  Picasso is widely attributed to saying “Bad artists copy.  Great artists steal.”  Hamlet, the paragon of Elizabethan theatrical expression, is a stolen idea.  An idea that Shakespeare lifted from an earlier author, whom he did not, as far as we know, credit.  Of course, it is what he did with that stolen idea that made all the difference.

The authors of the Op-Ed go clearly are batting for the rights of artists to make a living.  But by making it easier for some they are making it impossible for many.  DJ’s who remix other’s music into a new innovative and creative work are not allowed to sell that work, without first obtaining permission from every artist that they sampled.  And then there was the Jeff Koons “Balloon Dog” bookend debacle (Koons, it should be known, is a pop artist widely hailed for his appropriations of pop-culture). The job of an artist is that of cultural synthesizer.  We are to take all of the stimuli society throws at us, assess and interpret them and create a work that comments on the society in some way.  The artist cannot live in a vacuum, and they should not live in fear of litigation.  If someone were to rip off my idea, doesn’t that say something about the quality of my creative impulse?  Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

In a perfect world artists would all be paid inordinate amounts of money, and they would be held up as the stewards of societal memory and discourse.  Sadly, that is not the world we live in.  Most artists are poor as church-mice, and as respected too.  The impulse to protect intellectual property is gobbling up bigger and bigger swathes of our cultural heritage, as congress continues to extend the sunset date on personal copyright.  Something that, at one time, existed to protect the creator for their lifetime, has now been extended to their children’s lifetimes and beyond.  Does that kind of intellectual property law really benefit innovation?  Will the creators inheritors continue to create, or will they jealously guard grandpa’s idea, as it is their own cash cow?  It is a balancing act.  One that will not end soon.

Follow the link below to read the article

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/opinion/15turow.html?hp

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