IP, the Internet, Culture, and the Business of Culture

The most pretentious argument being made in favor of limiting access to and use of the Internet in order to preserve entrenched powers is that grassroots cultural participation and the democratization of creativity will result in the degrading of American culture. While there are many problems with this “argument” (or what may perhaps be more properly considered a condescending worldview than an argument), our essential disagreement with it boils down to two ideas central to American democracy and American culture: inclusion and empowerment. The democratization of the means of creating and disseminating cultural works both includes and empowers more people than do entrenched power centers.
Culture is not something reserved to an elite. No particular business or set of businesses and no particular business model should be protected from the winds of innovation and change in the name of preserving culture. A people’s culture is just that – the people’s culture.
A leading proponent of the death-of-culture argument is Robert Levine who explains his paternalistic stance in his book: Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back (2011). The subtitle says it all – he is about protecting the culture business. Essentially Levine warns that the great evil of unauthorized use of works protected by intellectual property rights, even when the unauthorized use is completely legal, is the removal of artists’ and writers’ financial incentives to produce quality work. According to Levine, if the current entrenched businesses are not rescued and restored to their positions of power, quality work will no longer be produced. According to Levine, the resulting void would be filled by pedestrian, lowest-common-denominator trash because such uninspired work takes little effort (and even less money) to produce. Levine pays lipservice to change and to the undeniable fact that many of the problems faced by big media are the result of their own decisions, but his core, oxymoronic point remains that culture cannot be entrusted to the people.
Initially Levine presents his book on the pending doom of American culture as an appeal really done on behalf of the financial interests of artists, writers, and musicians. (One might be forgiven for skepticism and for asking where was/is Levine on the issue of IP corporate establishment exploitation of African American and other marginalized artists who have been pillaged by those entities for more than a century.)
Of course “protecting struggling artists” is only the cover story. Levine actually knows what many other Americans realize–that most artists are trapped in contractual peonage with their corporate distributers and that they often retain no property interests capable of being ravaged by third-party pirates.
To illustrate the cultural wasteland spawned by the grassroots Internet movement, Levine points to “Charlie Bit My Finger.” Fair enough, perhaps, but Levine utterly ignores creative and impactful and socially desirable user-generated material such the insertion into a picture of Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” a still from the video of a policeman nonchalantly pepper spraying demonstrators engaging in the Occupy movement. (http://www.eutimes.net/2011/11/occupy-protest-cop-becomes-an-internet-craze-after-pepper-spraying/). Such works make statements and connect people culturally in ways Levine apparently does not value and would stop.
Online intellectual property piracy does exist and it can and does have adverse impacts on IP rights holders, though as demonstrated by William Patry in his book Moral Panic and the Copyright Wars, the impact is all but impossible to quantify. Furthermore, not all unauthorized use of copyrighted works is piracy. Much unauthorized use, such as fair use, is protected under intellectual property law. Not only are many such unauthorized uses not harmful either to rights holders or to society as a whole, but those uses contribute positively to the ongoing creation of culture.
The recognition that much unauthorized use is valuable is not merely the opinion of the technology sector or unrepentant file sharers; it is the edict of American copyright law. American intellectual property law is not designed to stop technological innovation and cultural change; it is designed to foster both. Indeed the constitutional grant of power to Congress to regulate copyrights and patents explicitly states that the purpose of such laws is to benefit the public. Innovation is to insure progress for everyone, not merely wealth for a few.
The Internet may indeed be destroying the culture business, or at least some of it in its entrenched form, but it is not destroying culture. Intellectual property law is not designed to be, never has been intended to be, and must not be allowed to become the footservant of moneyed erstwhile overlords. In the interest of the societal good, intellectual property should continue to be protected with the constitutional values of cultural evolution and socially just inclusion and empowerment in mind.
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