‘Long Live the Pirates? Over My Dead Body’: In Defence of Copyright

Elmo Keep delivers a blistering five-point argument in defence of copyright - and against those who are devaluing quality content by declaring it should be free.

Image: Elmo Keep

Amateurs Aren’t Professionals and Professionals Aren’t Amateurs

One should not negate the other. The rise of the online amateur is certainly to the greater good of collective knowledge and self-expression, on the whole. However, a world without professionals would mean relying solely on crowd-sourced knowledge projects like Wikipedia, which is rife with credibility issues that can only be corrected by people with knowledge of the field. Markets that were previously specialist have been flooded with amateurs not looking to make a living from their work, the by-product of which has been the increased difficulty with which professionals in these fields make their living. Jaron Lanier, author of Who Owns The Future? says of this erosion, ‘Sharing information freely, without traditional rewards like royalties or paychecks, was supposed to create opportunities for brave, creative individuals. Instead, I have watched each successive generation of young journalists, artists, musicians, photographers, and writers face harsher and harsher odds.’ Protecting creators’ income streams and moral and commercial rights through enshrined copyright law is one way to ensure at least a measure of fiscal compensation for professionals.

Somewhere, Someone Is Always Making Money

Many people, other types of professionals, profit from free creative labour and cheap digital goods. These include companies like Apple and Amazon, who use loss-leading products like mp3s and ebooks to further their primary profits, which come in the form of hardware (Apple) and crushing their competition through rock-bottom pricing (Amazon). Publishers frequently start up commercial online publications which aren’t able to pay contributors because they don’t have sufficient revenue to do so, yet each hopes to make itself into the next Huffington Post content farm and happily sells ad space along side free content. Not being paid for your work, or the time in labour costs which went into making the work, is almost always lining someone else’s pockets. It is also creating an increasingly wide gulf between those whose safety net can afford to sustain them on free labour and internships and those who cannot. There is no such thing as ‘free’. It costs money to make something. If there is no revenue being generated through those streams, then there is no revenue with which to create new work.

Artists Might Not Deserve To Be Paid, But They Don’t Deserve To Be Stolen From

Long live the pirates? Over my dead body. The idea that artists don’t ‘deserve’ to be paid is made, oddly enough by artists themselves, and is hard to square with reality. Of course, no one who produces work inherently ‘deserves’ for anyone to buy it. The flipside of choosing to not buy someone’s work, however, is not to therefore steal it. The trickle-down effects of piracy began with the devaluing of cultural goods to zero, and zero remaining the set price against which the market had to compete. The exceedingly cheap digital goods we buy today are a direct result of big tech companies capitalising on that unwillingness to pay by setting prices extremely low ($0.99 songs, $2.99 ebooks) and through this asserting market dominance which remains unchallenged, fuels their bottom lines and reinforces in consumer’s minds that digital = cheap. This was an extremely short-sighted plan, as digital goods now eclipse physical goods in sales and are worth nowhere near the hours required to create them.

But! Those Shows Shouldn’t Be So Expensive To Make!

Thank you for your nuanced cultural-economic critique! Sadly, some things are expensive to produce. Like journalism. But I guess it really shouldn’t cost so much to produce and it would instead be better to live in a world full of low-quality churn, trollbaiting, outrage-stirring opinion writing because that is the cheap alternative. And it is sure working out great.

Copyright Doesn’t Stifle Creativity

The ability to remix other work, to criticise, parody and satirise other works is not under threat. But the ability for creators to protect and earn a living from their intellectual property rights is threatened by those who propose the end of copyright. A right to make a living from one’s scientific, literary or artistic contributions is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Any work that generates revenue as a direct result of someone else’s intellectual property owes remuneration to the original work’s creator – unless the original creator makes explicitly clear the intended use of their work through Creative Commons. That isn’t some crazy throwback to the supposed golden age of cultural gatekeepers, it’s just about fairness. Anything else is theft.

Portrait of Elmo Keep

Elmo Keep is a writer and broadcaster working across print, television and online.