Don’t steal this article – but please do discuss it

In the battle between stopping copyright theft online and promoting the free exchange of ideas and images, there is more at stake than 'business models'.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Culture

There has never been a more tense time for those trying to protect their wares online. Amidst complaints about intrusions into privacy, and people kicking up a fuss about finding embarrassing photos of themselves on Facebook, there is an ongoing, heated debate about whether using other people’s images, sounds and words online counts as theft. And big money is at stake.

On one side of the debate are web campaigners, creatives both famous and unknown, who want the freedom to promote their work and spread their messages for free, as well as businesspeople who are happy to distribute things free of charge and who look for alternative sources of funding to cover the costs.

On the other side of the debate are those who counter that copyright protection on the web should not disappear because it is a valuable source of income, both for funding future creative work by professionals and for helping unemployed musicians and hard-up journalists make a living.

Copyright protection laws appear particularly arcane when transposed to the online sphere. People from all over the world are downloading each other’s files faster than you can say, ‘Oi! You’ve nicked my music sample’. Even if you wanted to punish the intellectual property grabbers, so many people are involved that millions would have to be tracked down and prosecuted.

Still, that hasn’t stopped the authorities from trying. For example, the biggest single action against illegal file-sharing took place in Germany last year when 3,500 individuals faced criminal prosecution for uploading large amounts of copyrighted material on peer-to-peer networks (1).

According to Jamie King, who made the mini-movie Steal this Film, trying to protect copyright online is ridiculous. In his view, you should forget about trying to protect your royalties and footage ownership. He himself makes films using other people’s footage – without asking for permission – and he encourages the public to ‘steal’ his film.

Speaking at the Britdoc festival in Oxford last month – an event which brought together around 300 documentary filmmakers, arts funders and charity workers to watch films and discuss how to fund filmmaking – King said that ‘how to fund creativity is the key question’. Old-style copyright law doesn’t fit with the demands of the new technology, claimed King. Steal this Film illustrates his point – and it has already been downloaded by 1.9million people. King has also received around £14,000 from 10,000 supporters.

Other speakers on the panel at Britdoc said that they understand why some musicians and documentary filmmakers want to distribute and share their work freely, but that they should not limit other ‘business models’. Yet such demands often come down to restrictions on the free exchange of ideas with damaging consequences for creativity and for freedom of expression.

These bigger issues did not come to the fore during the debate, as business models dominate thinking on both sides of the argument. The panel agreed that it is not just the exchange of ideas, but also formed words, sounds and images, that need to be considered. And creating these things can take a lot of time and money.

Yet the dividing line is not simply about what does or does not makes business-sense. You can be for the free and open exchange of ideas, music and film online without being antagonistic to business and profitability. It is possible to make money out of creative work through sources other than royalties and copyright protection.

Others, however, feel copyright protection is a valid form of business and that, in fact, it protects the creative process of artists. Some, like Eddy Leviten, head of communications at the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT), endorse a more paranoid argument in favour of copyright laws. Speaking from the panel, Leviten said copyright laws are a means for stamping out organised criminal gangs who rip off individuals.

A crucial distinction needs to be made between the need to earn a living and the potential of technology to boost creativity. Creativity shouldn’t just be considered in relation to business. It has a value all of its own.

It is understandable that musicians, photographers, writers and filmmakers want to protect their copyright. How else are they supposed to keep body and soul together? At the same time, the boundless enthusiasm people have for exchanging things online is helping to fuel a potential surge in high-value creativity around the world. Why put a stop to it? Creatives sell themselves short if they defend their work entirely on monetary grounds; they must find ways to defend their right to make a living while also celebrating their work’s intrinsic value.

Some creatives are indeed using alternative ‘business models’, relying on advertisers, big brand companies and charities to fully fund products so that they can be distributed for free. There is, of course, a risk that sponsors skew the creative work, but if we want to maximise creativity online and offline, we need to start trying out alternative methods rather than shying away from them.

It is not the responsibility of artists to justify why they’re using other peoples’ works in business terms. Rather it is those who defend the current economic status quo, which can sometimes limit creativity, who should account for themselves and help come up with something different. Moreover, when we discuss copyright protection on the internet, we need to bring issues of openness and freedom and the exchange of ideas into the discussion. Having that debate out will also take some imagination.

Tessa Mayes is a journalist and author. Email her at: {encode=”” title=””}

Previously on spiked

spiked and RightsWatch led an online debate on copyright in the digital age. Chris Evans looked at copyright and wrongs. Sandy Starr argued that European copyright regulators were learning the wrong lessons from the USA, and he celebrated Google’s attempt to build a virtual library. Or read more at spiked issue Free speech.

(1) IFPI welcomes criminal proceedings launched today against 3500 eDonkey users, IPFI, 23 May 2006

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Topics Culture


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