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<nettime> Social authorship in a capitalist age


28 August 2002

Beyond romance and repression: social authorship in a capitalist age

Jason Toynbee

The imposition of punitive new intellectual property regimes represents a
corporate assault on public culture. The connection between capitalism and
copyright helps us to understand why it is happening; while the reality of
'social authorship' offers a way to open up new possibilities for creative
workers in a reformed copyright system.


The copyright debate is certainly polarised, as Sandy Starr argues in a
recent contribution to openDemocracy's copyright debate. But that surely
reflects the reality of the situation, namely a conflict of interest
between the cultural industries, which market words, sounds and images,
and the workers and consumers who make and use them. Like Richard
Stallman, Siva Vaidhyanathan and others, I'm with the latter group. But I
want to make the case from a slightly different perspective.

Cultural capitalism and the Romantic myth

My starting point is that copyright emerged, and continues to develop, as
a form of property. It was a response not just to new technologies of
replication, but also a new economic order, capitalism. On the one hand,
printing and its descendants such as cinematography and sound recording
enabled the mass production of cultural goods. On the other hand, the same
technologies allowed others to copy and cheaply sell the work of
originators. To use economic jargon, cultural artefacts came to take on
the character of a public good, potentially being available to all at
marginal cost. What copyright law did in this situation was construct a
form of property, a private good, in the work. In essence, the work is
something that cannot be copied, at least without the owner's permission.

Who is the owner? Although attached to the author at birth, copyright in
the work has always been assignable to another party. The fact is that
rights that originate with a creator have to be sold on to a business with
enough capital and technology to exploit them. So I would take issue with
Richard Stallman's suggestion that there used to be a golden age when
copyright 'let authors restrict publishers for the sake of the general
public'. This is an idealised view of history. From the Statute of Anne to
the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), cultural capitalism has
driven the growth of copyright, always luring creators with the promise of
rights income, while always conceding a degree of 'fair use' to the public
in order to promote the circulation of its commodities.

Quite simply, then, copyright turns symbolic forms into property, and
market conditions ensure it is held and exploited by corporations. But
this is not a reality which sits very easily with public opinion. For
while the concept of private property in tangible goods, or chattels, is
deeply ingrained in Western societies, the same cannot be said about
symbolic works. A strong consensus, emerging first in the Enlightenment,
has it that culture should circulate freely. The Romantic movement then
contributes the idea that art and commerce are opposed, that the artist is
in heroic opposition to the drive for profit.

It is something of a contradiction, then, that in the modern era the
figure of the Romantic artist is invoked to justify copyright - the very
basis of commerce in culture. Yet this mythology lies at the heart of the
publicity and lobbying of the cultural industries. In a prominent position
on the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) website, for
example, we find these words from Sheryl Crow:

'Copyright protects the creative processŠ. It's rough out thereŠ. There is
nothing more inspiring to creativity than independence and that requires
protection. If you're an artist that can do something nobody else can, you
need to know that your work will not be diluted or mass produced.'

Now it seems to me that a key task for public culture advocates is to
expose such rhetoric for what it is. Janis Ian's contribution has been
really useful in this respect. She shows just how little rights income
gets back to most artists and, conversely, the extent to which file
sharing promotes CD sales for the great majority, outside the palace of
superstardom. Still, I think a further debunking move is required. We
badly need to blast away that Romantic paint job which content owners keep
applying to copyright's rusty hulk.

Social authorship: collaboration, combination, accumulation

We could start by showing how authorship is not at all a matter of heroic,
individual creation. Rather it is a social process. There are three
aspects to this. Firstly, there is collaboration, the fact that creative
acts depend on interactive networks. These extend way beyond the 'primary'
creator of songwriter, novelist or director, to include intermediaries and
entrepreneurs, technicians and tea makers. Audiences are part of the
creative network too, in that they play the role of editor, rejecting some
works and trends while affirming others.

Secondly, authorship is social in that it involves the recombination of
existing symbolic materials from a historically-deposited common stock.
These range from conventions such as the novel form, shot-reverse-shot
editing in cinema or machine code in software, through to realised pieces
of symbolic fabric such as War and Peace, the opening scene of Aliens or
Word 2. The key point is that there is a practical continuum between what
copyright law would keep as separate categories: idea (something freely
usable by all) and expression (the privately owned work). Symbol makers of
every hue are constantly re-using materials with different mixtures of
these elements.

A significant feature of contemporary culture is that this idea-expression
series is actually being reversed. Digital sampling, appropriation art and
the film essay (which uses existing footage) all employ the fabric of
previous works to depict new ideas and emotions. They therefore make a
nonsense of copyright fundamentalism.

The third aspect of social authorship is its incremental nature.
Significant new developments result from many small innovations rather
than major breakthroughs by single creators. As a result we can't say that
Charlie Parker was responsible for modern jazz any more than 4 Hero
invented the musical style known as drum and bass. Instead, the so-called
'greats' are summarisers of collaborative research and development work
undertaken over time. This echoes Richard Stallman's point about the role
of continuous modification in software design. I would simply add that
incremental change isn't confined to software. Rather it is a general
principle encountered in symbol making everywhere.

In all three aspects, then, the practice of social authorship belies a
crucial part of the rationale for copyright, namely that creativity is a
matter of individual and self-sufficient expression, and that ownership
should be attributed accordingly. What can we do with this argument?

The corporate assault on public culture

We are faced today with a major copyright offensive. Just as content
owners fought for the extension of property rights when earlier
technologies opened up access to existing cultural forms (broadcasting and
the video cassette are the most important cases in recent history), so too
the cultural industries today are fighting intensively to commodify the
new communication system of the Internet. With the Internet, the
difference is the vastly increased monopoly power of cultural capitalism.
A short history lesson bears this out.

In the early 1940s the radio industry struggled with music publishers in
the US to break the latters' stranglehold on the supply of songs for
broadcasting. The networks set up their own publishing agency, boycotted
ASCAP (the organisation of the established publishers) and finally forced
down music licensing fees across the board. A Justice Department decree
then consolidated the new competitive environment. In effect, conflict
over copyright between two sectors of capital had opened up public access
to music on the airwaves, and to new kinds of music too - R & B, country
and later rock'n'roll.

We cannot rely on such a process this time around. Content owners are more
powerful and more thoroughly integrated. They also have the ear of
governments, which through international treaties and national laws are
imposing an increasingly punitive intellectual property (IP) regime across
the world - so much for 'free trade'. In the case of webcasting, as Brian
Zisk points out, recent legislation extends phonographic performance
rights to the digital domain. Over-air broadcasters in the US have never
had to pay record companies in order to play records. Now an extra, and
impossible, burden is being imposed on webcasters, most of who will be
forced out of business.

The fact is that each week the list of restrictions and coercive measures
being proposed just gets longer. In this situation, the key objective must
be to formulate a counter strategy to that of the Motion Picture
Association (MPAA) and RIAA. So I entirely agree with Siva Vaidhynathan
when he calls for the formation of a coalition and 'a set of political
slogans and principles that can appeal broadly'. This is a matter of
resisting extremely well-organised and powerful interests. The libertarian
alternative - just keep hacking - is simply not going to work. As
Vaidhynathan points out, the problem is that a combination of
tightly-focused laws, tough sanctions and (in prospect) legally protected
cyber-sabotage from the corporations means that only a handful of
dedicated enthusiasts will be able to carry on sharing files.

Perhaps most worrying of all is the increasing integration of software,
hardware and content. The implementation of 'trusted' technology based on
protocols agreed between these rapidly converging sectors would
effectively spell the end of the PC and the Internet as we know them. The
new apparatus? A tightly-policed delivery system for e-commerce, with only
files certified by 'trusted' corporate agents able to move around the
network and, even worse, around the PC itself. In this all-too-possible
scenario, encryption and coercive copyright are ubiquitous.

Restrict copyright, revive creativity

Here's where the social authorship argument comes in. Quite simply, we
must enlist creative workers in the campaign to open up access to culture.
But we need to do so in a way that reflects the reality of their role as
collaborators and remixers. If this runs against the Romantic self-image
of some, it would actually benefit most artists in economic and creative

The high proportion of sales taken by a few stars means that, for most of
the time, the great majority of creative workers earn little. Clearly,
demand factors are at work here - people want stars. But there's no doubt
that the existing system of copyright also boosts the institution of
stardom by channelling rewards to the highly-visible few, and by providing
an artificial incentive for success over time. Long-term copyright
encourages the cultural industries to market long-term superstars. One way
of 'flattening out' cultural markets, of increasing innovation and
acknowledging the social nature of authorship would be to radically reduce
term. Michael Fraase's interesting four-step copyright solution includes a
fourteen-year proposal. There may be an argument for making it even

Along with reduction in term, a reformed copyright system should include
comprehensive digital rights management (DRM). At the moment, rights
revenue distribution is extremely uneven. For example, music performance
fees paid by broadcasters stream back to a few hit makers in
disproportionate amounts because the crude sampling systems currently in
use simply fail to register songs receiving lower airplay. So, DRM would
not only enable more efficient collection, but also a much fairer pattern
of distribution.

Equity would be further enhanced by making rights non-alienable. With
copyright in their own hands, authors and performers would receive a much
higher proportion of rights income. Such a move could also provide the
opportunity for renewing and extending mutual collection societies.
Instead of corporate rights holders arranging revenue collection and
management, this would be done by author-performer co-ops.

Of course, these reforms would radically change the shape of the cultural
industries, reversing the balance of power between creative workers and
the corporations. I don't have a problem with this.

Let me make two final points. Like Michael Fraase, I'd advocate repealing
the DMCA (in other countries this means forestalling the equivalent
legislation). We need a fairer copyright system, and that includes keeping
copyright out of the Internet and not-for-profit digital replication.
These are, respectively, a public space and a well-established fair-use
activity. On creative re-use of materials, copyright clearance tribunals
should be set up in all sectors to ensure that cultural workers are able
to get access to the stock of existing works quickly and cheaply. Surely
we want more sampling, quotation, and parody.

Of course some will squeal 'unwarranted regulation!' at these suggestions.
I would say: if you want to see what partisan state control of culture
really looks like, go no further than your local legislature where new and
coercive IP measures are being drafted right now.


Copyright © Jason Toynbee, 2002. Published by openDemocracy. Permission is
granted to reproduce articles for personal and educational use only.
Commercial copying, hiring and lending is prohibited without permission.
If this has been sent to you by a friend and you like it, you are welcome
to join the openDemocracy network.

Jason Toynbee is Lecturer at the Institute of Popular Music, University of
Liverpool, and author of Making Popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and
Institutions (Arnold, 2000). Some of the ideas in this article are
developed at greater length in Creating Problems: Social Authorship,
Copyright and the Production of Culture (2001), available at £3 or $5 from
the Pavis Centre for Social and Cultural Research, The Open University.





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