Celebrating 300 Years of Copyright


Counterpoint asked “a lot of people” (as Cory Doctorow put it) to reflect on the world of copyright on the 300th anniversary of the passage of Queen Anne’s Law, and to look at how copyright is being used (or abused) today, as well as how it might need to evolve.

I’ve only read a handful so far–Doctorow’s piece was unsurprising if you know his work, and Ronaldo Lemos pointed out that for much of the world, copyright just doesn’t matter because of a lack of enforcement mechanisms, among other things. But Martin Smith raises a point that I want to take on, because it’s fundamentally at odds with the way I see art.

Smith compares one’s creative output to one’s personal data, and then writes “Just as ‘data subjects’ should be able to control their own personal data, so artists and rights-holders should be able to control what is done with their work – whether to make it available for sharing free of charge, or to license its use on commercial terms.” I think his comparison is flawed on a couple of levels. One has to do with the purpose of the data.

I don’t know of a single artist who’s trying to make a living from his or her work who does so by keeping it secret, by protecting it from public view. The whole point, it seems to me, whether you’re a writer or a performing artist or a visual or graphic artist, is to get people to look at your work. Because of that, the artist gives up a certain claim to privacy.

“But it’s not privacy that’s the issue–it’s control,” is the logical reply. But the two are linked. Writers control their work up to the point at which someone else reads and interprets it. Painters, dancers, actors–it’s all the same. Artists can only perform or create–we can’t force interpretation, and what’s more, we can’t stop someone from taking that performance or creation and using it as the basis for their own creative act. At the most basic level, we call it inspiration; with a little more distance, homage; and in today’s culture, we call it mash-up (or, at times, piracy).

I believe that no work of art actually comes into existence until another person experiences it–before that, it’s only potential art, just like a rock poised at the top of a hill is filled with potential energy. It’s the meeting of reader and writer, viewer and painter, listener and musician inside the medium which creates the piece of art. In order for the art to occur, the artist has to give up some control. Copyright is the negotiation over how much control the artist will give up.

Smith suggests artists should have the same amount of control as consumers have over their personal data (an amount I believe he overstates, but that’s another argument). I believe that if artists exert that kind of control–assuming they’re able to in the first place–they stop creating art.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →