Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about all the faces she makes while painting faces and other things.

Taking the “property” out of intellectual property

2011 . 06 . 28 - Comments / Commentaires (7)

As a copyright law radical, I often end up in the crosshairs of copyrightists.  And I say crosshairs because there seems to be a certain amount of vitriol that comes with being a vocal supporter of copyright.  While not every creative who uses copyright is that way, there is a faction whose opposition to free culture is nasty.  Why?

From my experience, the fury comes from a few sources:

1) Many copyrightists became copyrightists after they had their work ripped off in some manner.  The hostility they have for advocates of free culture stems from a feeling of personal violation.

2)  A lot of copyrightists think that copyright law radicals are pirates.  This false assumption reveals how little these copyrightists have thought about the issue.  Just because the free culture movement doesn’t believe that copyright law as it stands is beneficial to creatives doesn’t mean that its adherents are hacks or copycats or even that we don’t give credit when we use someone else’s work.  In a lot of cases, we’re better about acknowledging sources than most because we’ve given a lot more thought to the issue.

3) Some copyrightists think that advocates of free culture don’t want artists to make a living from their work.  I can’t be the only copyright law radical that is a full-time artist: there are many ways to make a living with art that have nothing to do with enforcing copyright law.

4) Whether they realize it or not, all copyrightists believe in private ownership of culture.  Since the free culture movement fights this ideology, there’s bound to be conflict.

Though I find all the responses I’ve provoked fascinating, it’s this last source of anger that interests me especially. 

Often in discussions surrounding copyright, copyrightists will argue that creative output can be managed much like a house or a car.  They believe that in the same way as a home or a vehicle can only be owned by one or two people intellectual property cannot be owned collectively in a useful manner.  It seems logical, and I’m not the sort of person to espouse communist ideals like collective ownership lightly, so how can I disagree?

The problem with the argument is its premise.  Intellectual property is a misnomer, because so-called “intellectual property” isn’t like other kinds of property.

For one thing, intellectual property doesn’t have a physical embodiment—there’s no tangible thing that can be owned based on obvious physical boundaries between what is the owned thing and what is something else.  For another, individual houses and cars don’t usually have the capacity to change the world, while culture does.



Mimi and Eunice, Ownership Brick

Nina Paley’s Mimi And Eunice “Ownership Brick”

Culture isn’t something that can be chopped up into pieces of property.  Taken out of the wider context, every painting, every song, and every piece of anything cultural loses its power and its value—financial or otherwise.

The only reason why art matters is because we make it matter.  When a piece of culture is made untouchable by copyright—when we feel like we’ll be sued if we so much as think of consuming the work—we’ll move on to some other piece.  A piece that can be as much ours as it is yours.  A piece that we can use to build something new.


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(7) Comments / Commentaires: Taking the “property” out of intellectual property

-- Cory Huff -- 2011 . 06 . 28 --

It does seem that there is a definite paradigm shift towards a more open, free culture in terms of copyright.

The copyright protectionists seem to be more and more out of touch as time passes. Unless you have tremendous resources at your disposal, it’s nearly impossible to enforce copyright, so why not take the Judo approach and go with it, using the momentum to help you in the battle?

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-- Gwenn -- 2011 . 06 . 28 --

Nice way of putting it!

Yes, it does seem like the shift is beginning, but there’s still a lot of fear (as I perceive it) that’s keeping some momentum behind copyright.  I went to a talk called Copyright For Bloggers last night and I was struck by the anger on both sides—anger at being made to unravel complicated licensing requirements and pay fees as well as anger at being stolen from.  It seems so obviously unhealthy to me…

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-- Emilie -- 2011 . 08 . 03 --

That’s it exactly. Intellectual property is NOT property in the same way as personal/real property. As soon as you put it in those terms, problems arise. Language like “stealing”, “pirates”, etc. are polarizing terms and prevent us from having a rational discussion about the sorts of rules that would work best for the ACTUAL goals of copyright.

Really we should look at copyright policy as a set of rules that have been adopted via legislation. It’s not about “property” at all. So what’s the goal? Is it to promote culture or is it to compensate authors? (or both?) How do we find a balance? These are the questions we should be addressing, but they’re impossible to consider as long as people keep framing the debate in terms of property and theft.

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-- Gwenn -- 2011 . 08 . 03 --

I like that approach—going back to the basics and trying to determine what problem it is we’re trying to solve.  It’s something I should also probably do in other areas of my life!

It’s always nice to meet another creative who isn’t afraid to talk about copyright!

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-- Emilie -- 2011 . 08 . 03 --

Heh.. I’m actually a creative and a former law student, so nope, definitely not afraid to talk about copyright. smile

Very nice to meet you too Gwenn. I think we probably have a lot in common.

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-- Webgrrl -- 2012 . 03 . 16 --

“Only God creates. The rest of us just copy.” - Michelangelo

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-- Gwenn -- 2012 . 03 . 20 --

We copy, we alter slightly, and sometimes we even improve.  Copying: it’s what we are good at!

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