Copyright or copywrong?
American cartoonist and animator Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues animation almost never saw the light of day because of copyright issues. The animation, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008, struggled to overcome obstacles in clearing the rights to Annette Hanshaw’s 1929 recording of ‘mean to me’. While the recordings were out of copyright, the compositions were still covered and would have required around $50,000 to pay for them.
Subsequently, Paley has become involved with the organisation Question Copyright to “expand the range of acceptable public debate around copyright” and to help reframe the way people, and artists in particular, think about copyright. As Paley points out in this interview from 2008 “I think what a lot of artists forget is that we’re loosing something by having this much control”. If copyright is there to protect the rights of the artist or those who own the work, then a consequence of this protection is to stifle the natural flow of influence, adaptation and appropriation that marks much of the cultural developments of the 20th century and beyond.
Following this logic, would rock and roll have developed without so many musicians borrowing from one another, changing and evolving the form as they went, or artists inhabiting the styles of others as they develop their voice (Picasso springs to mind here). Neither Hip Hop nor Pop Art would have developed without existing popular culture being reused and repurposed into new cultural forms. On the other hand, how are artists able to support themselves without some kind of control over their intellectual property, musical or image rights?
Copyright law is the default position on claiming rights over a piece of work and generally remains in place for 50 years. However, there are other options available for those who are happy to share their creations. Copyleft is a method for maintaining some rights of ownership while allowing room for more open distribution and modification. The Creative Commons network is an example of the copyleft philosophy of public sharing in action, with original pieces of work being offered to others for reuse or modification, providing the original creator is cited.
In his 1969 essay, what is an author? Michel Foucault traces the evolution of the need to have a named author of a piece of work – from a way to attribute responsibility to potentially heretical scientific ideas to contemporary notions of authorship that serves a range of functions that help define and regulate the circulation and attribution of ideas. For Foucault the author does not precede the works as an initiator of ideas, but “serves a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses.” He argues that our understanding of authorship is informed by our era of industrialisation, individualism and private property but this function could and should evolve. Perhaps in ways that the Copyleft movement is already suggesting.
So how do artists balance the protection that copyright allows them with the creative act of borrowing and adding to our wider culture?