What’s wrong with copyright?

Without copyright protection creative types would not create. That, apparently, is one of the defenses put forward by the likes of the RIAA and the MPAA. These organizations chase after file sharers and attempt to gain millions of dollars of recompense each year from people who swap music and movie torrents. But isn’t this defense simply justification for a whole new industry that could outgrow the music and movie industries themselves?

It’s fairly well documented that many recording artists in the past were offered draconian record company contracts and received little compensation for their creativity compared with the company profit lines. There’s also the almost forgotten fact that decades of music charts were hyped as company A&R staff bought up their label’s records to boost chart placements. There’s also the pricing concept associated with a manufactured music disk and accompanying liner notes and the virtual download version of an “album” and how that somehow should cost the same instore and online.

Brazilian musician Denis Borges Barbosa who recently published a critique of the state of copyright in the world of music, also points out that the prime defense of copyright protecting creativity is a fallacy. In his critique he suggests that we take a look at the plight of composer-musicians stretching back to the Baroque period to see just how ludicrous a claim that is.

Eighteenth century composer Georg Philipp Telemann, for instance, is the most prolific composer in history. A lawyer by training (oh, the irony) he was simultaneously a public servant, a publisher, a concert promoter, a conductor, and a performer, and wrote some 8000 opi. There was no copyright law to protect his works. Likewise, Vivaldi composed over 500 concerti, 43 operas, published 100 opi. Handel (who also started law school) staged 50 of his operas and 23 oratorios. Beethoven produced 849 opi (eight concerti and nine symphonies). Mozart and Bach we incredibly creative and prolific too.

Barbosa suggests that it was the total lack of any copyright protection that made these famous names such workaholics; they had to slave away at their staves simply to keep ahead of the competition. However, by the twentieth century, long after copyright laws had been laid down, the likes of Gershwin and Bernstein received amazing plaudits, awards, and no little reward for much more modest levels of musical output.

Gershwin wrote a mere 19 classical pieces, 35 Broadway shows and contributed to 22 other plays, and seven films, while Bernstein wrote just three symphonies, two operas and five musicals. All amazing stuff, but not the hundreds or thousands of their classical predecessors.

It seems that copyright laws, while protecting vested interests have simply stifled creativity. Looking at the statistics for modern composers Bernstein, Gershwin, and their contemporaries and comparing them with those of just one Telemann or Vivaldi suggests that the public has been massively deprived of the full potential of such composers. A lack of copyright protection may have seen Bernstein et al working even harder and producing an even greater musical legacy.

“The example of the 18th century composers who thrived both in cultural and market terms sheds some doubt on the dogma that without effective copyright the output of symbolic goods would diminish on a significant level,” concludes Barbosa. He suggests that a system that sidesteps intellectual property rights and copyright [Creative Commons, Copyleft, Open Source, for instance] could be more conducive to high levels of creativity.

Of course, such a suggestion would remove the members of the RIAA and MPAA from the equation, leaving the artists and creators with a direct connection to their listening and watching public. Perish the thought that artists might be able to talk direct to their public with no intermediaries to cream off a percentage.

Research Blogging IconDenis Borges Barbosa (2010). On artefacts and middlemen: a musician’s note on the economics of copyright International Journal of Intellectual Property Management, 4 (1/2), 23-44

Author: David Bradley

Freelance science journalist, author of Deceived Wisdom. Photographer and musician.