Whose Idea Was This, Anyway?

The search for culture in a land of intellectual property

| January 15, 2004

Intellectual property laws were originally conceived to protect and nurture creative expression. Simply put, Artist A didn?t want Artist B ripping off her song, her painting, her plot-line, photo, poem, or prose. Consequently, laws were introduced to make the plagiaristic impulse not only taboo, but punishable, and artists had a certain institutional encouragement to be more original.

But, argues Fiona Morgan in the Durham [North Carolina] Independent Weekly, in an increasingly cut-and-paste creative culture, the laws often suffocate artistic expression. 'Copyright law,' she writes, 'has gone from promoting creativity to hindering artistic expression, thanks in part to the efforts of a few giant corporations that are sitting on billions of dollars worth of intellectual property.'

In the past, a creator slapped a copyright notice on the work, it was protected for twenty-eight years, and then it became part of the public domain, where anyone could have access to it. But in, 1976, corporations like Disney influenced lawmakers to extend protection to fifty years, and in 1998, with Sony Bono's Copyright Extension Act, proitection was stretched to seventy years for individuals and ninety-five for corporations. The result, Duke Law Professor, James Boyle, told Morgan, is that 'we?ve locked up all of twentieth century culture. Every book, every movie, every poem, every song [will be protected] for nearly 100 years.'

Morgan offers hip-hop music and documentary film as examples of art forms that suffer under these laws. Hip-hop's tradition of sampling, which once '[churned] the raw material of media saturation into biting commentary with a good beat,' has lately become a liability, as record labels are wary of paying high prices to sample even the shortest segments, and even more wary of potential lawsuits if they try to maneuver around copyright law. Ditto for documentary film makers, who have to be careful about showing any copyrighted material within the frame, lest they be made to pay for it.

Despite the big and oft-confusing business of intellectual property, Morgan cites several groups -- including Creative Commons, Electric Frontier Foundation, and Center for the Public Domain -- who advocate for more realistic laws, attempt to make more accessible works that already exist in the public domain, and seek to educate artists about their choices.
-- Eric Larson

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