The False Dichotomies of the Copyright Debates

Yin Yang ImageWhen it comes to the battles over copyright, it’s almost always positioned as a struggle between two opposing sides with mutually-exclusive goals. It’s old media vs. new media, copyright holders vs. consumers, special interest groups vs. the public.

The list goes on.

It’s easy to present the arguments these ways and, to a degree, everyone involved in the debate does it. It’s easy to get people fired up, especially when they might not be passionated about the issue, if they feel they are on a team opposing someone else or if they are being attacked by an outside force.

But very rarely is that the case.

The truth is much more complicated and nuanced but analysis and thoughtful debate rarely makes for good headlines or good campaigns, political or otherwise.

Still, it’s important for those who are passionate to be aware of the lines in the sand that are being drawn and why those lines, for the most part, are completely meaningless.

When it comes down to it, we’re all in this together and no artificial divisions or grandstanding is going to change that.

A Pretty Big Group

A recent survey released by the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) finds that an estimated 5.4 million people in the U.S. alone earn their employment from one of the “core” copyright industries, adding over $1 trillion to the U.S. economy.

The study defines the “core” copyright industries as ones, “whose primary purpose is to create, produce, distribute or exhibit copyright materials and include such sectors as computer software, videogames, books, newspapers, periodicals and journals, motion pictures, recorded music, and radio and television broadcasting.”

Since the data in the survey comes from the U.S. government, rather than many other industry reports that only tabulate members of specific organizations, the survey’s data is probably the widest net it can cast, catching nearly all employed in copyright industries, regardless of how big or small.

However, what the study didn’t measure, which wasn’t part of it’s focus, was the number of people who make copyrighted works. That number is far closer to 100% of the U.S. population.

Indeed, while term “copyright holders” is often used a slur to demean those who want to pass stronger copyright legislation or enforce their rights, the truth is that the people saying it are also copyright holders.

Which, in turn, brings us to our first false dichotomy.

Content Creators vs. Consumers

One of the notions we hear is that content creators are at war with consumers and the public at large but that is simply impossible.

First off, as mentioned above, nearly every single person in the world a content creator, and thus a copyright holder. Just because one doesn’t make some or all of their living off of copyrighted works doesn’t mean they don’t create valuable works and hold the copyright in them.

Everyone who has taken a photograph, written an essay, doodled on a napkin or shot a video has created a copyrighted work. Just because you don’t make any living directly from your work doesn’t mean it isn’t or won’t become valuable suddenly.

We’ve already seen photos of families end up on billboards half a world away and Twitter uses licensing their photos to news agencies, as with the Miracle on the Hudson photos.

In short, nearly everyone is a content creator, just as everyone is a content consumer. After all, every artist, musician, filmmaker and author consumes content from within their field and without.

As such, it’s pretty much impossible for copyright to be about creators vs. consumers when everyone is literally on both sides at all times.

Old Media vs. New Media

While it is true that the Web has created a slew of new opportunities for artists, opening the doors to more people than ever to find an audience, it’s also created new opportunities for established and traditional artists.

If you look at the top 100 YouTube channels (as of this writing), nearly a quarter of them are official artists signed with a record label, including 18 Vevo channels alone. Vevo itself is a partnership between Universal Music, Sony Music, Abu Dhabi Media and Google, a mix of “traditional” and “new media” companies.

But even when you look at individual artists the issues often get blurry. Justin Bieber started out posting videos on YouTube but was discovered and picked up by a label and is now one of the largest examples of a successful “traditional” musician. However, at the same time he is also a major success on “new media” with a wildly popular YouTube channel and social media presence.

The result is that nearly every artist or company is actively involved in “new media”, no matter how traditional they may seem. Nearly every type of work is available for purchase legally online (at least at some point in its product cycle) and everyone is using the Internet to their advantage.

While you may be able to decide who you think is “old media”, there now doubt that, in 2013, everyone is “new media” as well.

Artists vs. Innovators

To start with this dichotomy is insulting to artists, indicating that they are not innovators. A genre-defying song, a powerful movie, a compelling book, etc. can all be just as significant of innovations as the next social networking tool.

But the bigger implication of this is that artists are against technological innovation or technology in in general.

That first ignores the fact that the core copyright industries include software developers and video game developers, two groups of content creators that depend on technological innovation.

But the truth is that even “old guard” industries such as publishers, movie studios and record labels haven’t protested against innovation, they’ve protested against what they see as exploitation.

Spotify, Netflix, VEVO, Hulu and other companies all show that those who innovate with content creators, instead of leaving them out of the loop, will find open arms and they can revolutionize the content industries in a way that benefits everyone involved, including the consumer.

Bottom Line

To be clear, these are just some of the dichotomies I see regularly as commentators, often on both sides of the issue, try to force the subject into a battle of one side versus another or, more aptly, us vs. them.

The truth is much more nuanced and the issues are much more complex than can ever be expressed in a simple paradigm. Worst of all though, we’re never going to resolve these issues or find any reasonable common ground so long as the parties involved believe, in their hearts, that this is a fight to the death.

When you feel like you’re being attacked and your survival is at stake, compromise becomes impossible. While it’s a great way to flare up passions, it’s a terrible way to find solutions.

So next time someone tries to pitch the copyright wars as a war of two sides, think about these false dichotomies and look honestly at the two sides. You might find that, in reality, they are pretty much one and the same.

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