Copyright and authorship: reading Thomas Streeter’s Selling the Air
By Kristopher A. Nelson
in November 2011
600 words / 3 min.
Tweet Share Copyright law is often approached in terms of debates over competing interpretations of the law: should copyright be used to protect the author’s freedom, or to encourage the public distribution of culture and information, or to turn intellectual products into marketplace commodities, or to serve the interests of corporate publishers and distributors?
Note: this post is from 2011. Evaluate with care and in light of later events.
In Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States, Thomas Streeter writes:
Copyright law is often approached in terms of debates over competing interpretations of the law: should copyright be used to protect the author’s freedom, or to encourage the public distribution of culture and information, or to turn intellectual products into marketplace commodities, or to serve the interests of corporate publishers and distributors?
He then explains that, at least in the Western–and perhaps especially in the American–tradition, “copyright is the enactment of the dream that the disparate goals and values of individual creative freedom, commerce, and informational dissemination can be reconciled in law.”
In the United States, copyright has always served a functional purpose:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution).
Drawing on this, Streeter writes that:
From the beginning, therefore, copyright was understood more in functional than in formal or moral terms; the emphasis was more on copyright’s role in encouraging the distribution of culture and information than on its inherent justice.
But even though copyright is functional, and emerged in tandem with the spread of new technologies like the printing press (and later, radio, television, the Internet, etc.), we have maintained a very Romantic notion of the authorial genius-creator:
American law depends on conceptual distinctions, particularly originality and the distinction between an idea and its expression, that are derived from the romantic image of authorship as an act of original creation whose uniqueness springs from and is defined in terms of the irreducible individuality of the writer.
But, Streeter points out, modern broadcast mediums–especially television, but also music, movies, and more–do not have individual “authors,” and yet our legal approaches to copyright still assume some notion of an individual author or creator.
One way the law has handled this is through the fictional “corporate person” who now owns copyrights and substitutes for individual creative humans. These large bureaucratic institutions now “create” most modern works, but still argue that consumers have a moral right to compensate them for their creation in a way that tends to invoke romantic authorship–and breaks down when the “creator” is a large multinational corporation.
Corporations have responded to create bureaucratic enforcement mechanisms, so-called “copyright collectives,” such as ASCAP and BMI. These groups create licensing arrangements that only roughly correspond to “actual” use or “actual” creators (and often strike me as rather reminiscent of a protection racket…).
New technologies that have emerged after Streeter’s book hold the potential for revolutionizing this relationship, although Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, et. al. fundamentally do nothing about the problem of corporate content creation. They do, however, re-enable the possibility of individual creators (if such a thing really exists…) to escape the old bureaucratic confines and to more directly connect with consumers via mediators that can reduce the communications and collections overhead.
So is this really a revolution? Perhaps–but as I said, it does nothing about the major point of Streeter that much of today’s media has no individual creator at all. In such a case, these new technologies merely permit more efficient collection, cutting back on the number of “middlemen,” but don’t otherwise revolutionize anything at all.