Back in March, the band Ghost Beach stirred up controversy with a billboard campaign in Times Square that encouraged artists to “pick a side” on piracy. Dubbed the “Piracy is Progress” campaign by many, it featured a rotating billboard that had a variety of expressions regarding piracy, both for and against, with an invitation for others to both tweet their views and “choose a side” on their own site.
The call to action on their site ended with a choice. You could either choose to stand against piracy and purchase the band’s latest album online or, if you chose piracy, you would be whisked to a direct download link to grab a zip file of the music for free.
But as others, including Ellen Seidler at VoX Indie, pointed out, the campaign’s definition of “piracy” was a bit skewed. Piracy is meant to be a term used for unauthorized reproduction of content. However, by making the track available, they were giving their permission for the download, making it not a pirated (or otherwise unlawful) copy.
But debates about what the word piracy means are nothing new. Those issues go back as far as the term itself and it’s far from the only term in the copyright debates that has been subject to multiple and creative interpretations.
In fact, in the passions of the copyright debate, even seemingly straightforward terms can have multiple meanings. Take, for example, the term “content creator”. One of the hottest topics online and off right now is the question of qualifies as a “content creator”.
Considering that it’s a term at the very heart of the copyright conversation, how we define it could go a long way to shaping the conversation that follows.
Strangely, it’s not a simple question and even I, someone who has used the term with frightening regularity, is having a difficult time penning the perfect definition.
Who’s a Creator Anyway?
The debate over who is and is not a copyright creator can be summarized in a Twitter exchange between Parker Higgins, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and various other Twitter users.
The conversation began when he retweeted the following from the EFF feed that was covering the recent copyright hearings in Congress:
Gervais: #Copyright must work for “creators, users, and people who connect them.” // Yes. But remember, almost everybody is all three.
— EFF Live Tweets (@EFFLive) May 16, 2013
Nate Glass of Takedown Piracy responded, after some initial back and forth, saying:
@xor no..the onus is on your buddies to back up their claim that “almost everybody” is a content creator and user.
— Nate Glass (@tdpnate) May 16, 2013
To which Higgins responded:
@tdpnate look: have you ever met a single person that’s never done one creative thing? Taken a photo, written a blog post, sketched?
— Parker Higgins (@xor) May 16, 2013
To be clear, I’m not criticizing either Glass or Higgins. They’re both great copyright thinkers that I admire greatly and follow closely on Twitter and elsewhere. However, watching their conversation, it was immediately clear that they were talking about two very different definitions of the word “creator”.
Glass, as well as others who joined the conversation, (seemingly at least) took a more narrow approach to defining content creator as someone who creates material as part of their livelihood, either in whole or in part. Higgins, on the other hand, defined it more broadly as just anyone who has created a copyrighted work at any point in their lives.
So who is right or is there a right answer to be found? To find out we have to first break down the arguments and see what’s really going on.
A Matter of Perspective
For Higgins and those who use the term in that way, the expression “content creator” is both straightforward and literal. It’s anyone who creates content. In that regard, virtually every man, woman and child is a content creator. Every kindergartner who has done a fingerpainting, every person who’s taken photos on a cell phone and every individual who has penned a letter are all copyright holders and, therefore, content creators.
However, on the flip side of the coin, of all of the people who are content creators in the most literal sense of the word, only a fraction of a percent make all or some of their living from copyrighted works. For every professional photographer, there thousands of people snapping away with their smartphones and other digital cameras.
Any change in copyright law is, inevitably, going to disproportionately affect the professional and semi-professional creators. For example, a drastic reduction in the copyright term won’t have a major impact on the father shooting vacation videos, but it could be catastrophic to movie studios and the people who work for them.
Furthermore, it’s that professional content that makes up the majority of the media consumed, both legitimate and illegal. For example, if there’s one thing we can glean from Torrentfreak’s weekly list of most pirated content, it’s that illegal downloaders aren’t rushing to grab home movies.
But does this mean that non-professional content creators don’t deserve a seat at the table? After all, even if copyright issues affect professionals far more, they do impact everyone who created copyrighted work, even if they don’t share their work at all. Orphan works legislation, for example, could have a drastic impact on virtually anyone that creates copyrighted works without clear attribution.
Needless to say, these are tough questions and, if you have a simple answer, you’re probably oversimplifying the issue at least some.
What it’s Really About
The importance of this issue is simple. Whenever there is talk of revising or modifying copyright laws, there’s always talk that they laws should protect different stakeholders and one of those stakeholder groups is always “content creators”.
While that sounds simple to protect, who you include in that group has a big impact on the types of laws you want to write.
For example, if you write legislation to protect every copyright holder equally, meaning nearly every person in the world, it’s going to look very different than legislation aimed primarily at primarily protecting just professional and semi-professional artists.
How this term is defined, quite literally, determines the type of legislation and protect you want as you can’t do what’s best for content creators without first defining who is in that group.
But perhaps even worse is that this term, like others in the copyright conversation, makes it easy for two people who are trying to find common ground to talk past one another and never find a meaningful point of agreement because they are starting from separate assumptions.
But this is often par for the course when it comes to the copyright debates. The conversation is often so focused on semantics about terms that are clearly defined and understood, even if not always popular, that there isn’t much room for debate or discussion about the terms that actually do cause confusion.
So who is a content creator? It’s still a tough question.
Clearly, the definition has changed in the last 25 years. The Internet tore down much of the divide between creator and consumer and the creator class is no longer limited to just the purely professional (or those who desire to be professional).
However, it’s also obvious that not all copyright holders have an equal stake, at least not yet. A disproportionate few still produce the bulk of the most popular and commercially-viable content and they are the ones with livelihoods on the line. It makes sense that those who can be impacted the most should have the largest voice, at least of that group.
For me, when I use the term on this site, I intend it to be self-defining. If you think of yourself as a content creator, whether you’re a blogger, a professional artist or someone else who puts their work out there, the term applies to you if you want it to.
But even if you accept my definition, which I don’t expect anyone to do because it’s purely one for this site, it only defines one group of stakeholders in the copyright debates. How one defines the public, for example, is a completely separate question.
Of course, then you have the issue of defining the stakeholders at all in the copyright debates and that, in turn, shows just how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.