Tapping Into Our Wellspring

Ask yourself this: what is copyright for? Why do we have it? What is its function? Not surprisingly, most will answer that it’s for protection from theft of our intellectual property. It’s to keep people from stealing your songs, or your films, or photographs, or other creative content. To protect you from thieves. It serves to punish those who steal. Well, yes and no. It has a sort of secondary function that serves all of that, but its true purpose is not a moral one, it’s a utilitarian one. And it goes all the way back to 1710, with the Statute of Queen Anne. So, what utility, exactly does it serve? It might surprise you to know that its purpose is to give incentive to creative type folks… to coax them to create more cool stuff  for us to enjoy… Copyright’s originators (and among them in the USA was Thomas Jefferson) intended that its purpose was not to protect those creations forever, nor was it to protect them for the artist’s children’s and grandchildren’s estates. Nor was it to protect them for corporations (who, by the way, don’t create anythng.…. people do…). It was meant to give the artist a bit of breathing room (around 14 years, then 28, back then) so they could reap a bit of profit from their works, while creating more works. After that, creative content was intended to go into the public sphere, or the public domain as we know it, to be freely used by everyone. To enrich our culture. The whole idea (and I believe it’s a good one) was to encourage people to create works of art in all  fields, to allow them to profit from them, and then to enrich the public domain (and consequently, our lives). Capitalism has put an end  to all of that in the 20th century. We now see copyright as a moral  issue, using terms like ‘pirates’ and ‘thieves’. We’ve come to accept–no, to expect–that an artist should own their work for decade upon decade, that their children and their children’s children will own it long after they are dead, and that nothing should be forthcoming from them that we’ll eventually be free to use. This is not only wrong for our society, it’s downright dangerous, because it is steadily shrinking the public domain. A lot’s been written about this, by people far more eloquent than I am, but I wanted to throw my hat in the ring alongside them. This is something that needs to be constantly talked about, until this stigma of guilt and shame is lifted and we can begin to see that the shrinking of our public sphere is not in our best interests. I want artists to get paid for their work. I want to see them profit–even to see them get rich–but I also want to live in a world where it’s just natural to share your art as a gift to your community, as a way to help, in your own small way, to make the world a richer, more vibrant place, and to help nurture the wellspring that we all need to draw from for our inspiration.