Who gets to own our culture?

In honour of Techdirt’s World IP Day “anti-contest”, I’ve decided to write a few words about the relationship between copyright and culture.

Specifically, I’m interested in the question of who gets to own our culture, because copyright is the mechanism we use to answer that question.  Copyright — intellectual property — is the idea that when you create something — a photograph, a song, a film, or an essay like this one — you own that creation by virtue of being its creator.  You are free to publish it or to hide it away, to be magnanimous in sharing it with the world or to set up a toll booth and charge people for experiencing your creation.  All of those things belong to you by right — and that right is called copyright.  Thus are the seeds of ownership planted for all of the cultural artifacts that are created.

Culture is a different beast.  It’s also a very fuzzy concept.  When people talk about culture, they never quite seem to know exactly what they mean.  We often seem to think it has something to do with the arts — the “cultural industries” are the ones that produce things like literature and art and movies.  Or, perhaps it has something to do with having a shared language or ethnic background.  Or food.

What I mean by culture is this:  Culture is just the things that people share between them.  And, to the extent that they share things, they share a common culture.  Culture is the lingua franca that binds a particular group of people together, whether that group is a nation, a particular ethnicity, a company (as in “corporate culture”), or just a small group of friends.  Culture is made of the common experiences that bind a group together.  Whatever group it is, the most salient feature of culture is that it is shared within that group.

That feature puts it in direct conflict with the idea of copyright.  Because if culture is fundamentally about sharing, copyright is fundamentally about controlling who gets to share.  If you own the copyright on some cultural artifact — let’s say the new Star Wars movie — you control who gets to watch Star Wars.  By extension, that also means you control who gets to talk about Star Wars and what they are allowed to say about it.  Because, if you can’t watch Star Wars, you lose access to the culture that is Star Wars and the things you are able to say about it will be very limited.

In a very real way, owning copyright means owning a piece of culture.  And, with that in mind, let’s return to the question of who gets to own our culture.  Initially, copyright belongs to creators.  There’s an intuitive appeal to this arrangement; it makes sense that the originator of a piece of culture gets to own it.  But, in reality, it is not creators who own our culture.  In fact, much of the culture that matters — the culture that is shared widely enough to be known on a large scale — is owned by large media conglomerates.  Star Wars is owned by the Walt Disney Company, not by George Lucas.

Of course, saying that our culture is owned by giant media conglomerates is a gross over-simplification.  Copyright is automatic and universal, which means everything from the e-mail you wrote to your boss last week to Donald Trump’s latest tweet is covered under copyright as a potential cultural artifact.  And there are plenty of aspects of culture that are not covered under copyright at all — language and food being two obvious examples.

Still, there is something significant about the amount of control that media companies exert on our culture.  And that significance is evidenced by the phrase that I used to describe it.  Media conglomerates don’t just own a lot of culture.  They own a lot of culture that matters.  In crass corporate terms:  They make it their business to own culture that is worth a lot of money, and, if possible, to increase the amount of money that they can earn from that culture.  What determines which culture is worth money?  Or, put another way, what determines cultural value?  We’ve already answered that question:  It is the culture that is most widely shared.

That’s significant, because it belies the intuition we had about copyright belonging rightly to creators.  It’s not creators that create cultural value.  The value comes much more from the sharing than from the creation.  A moment’s thought will confirm this.  Of the immense number of copyrightable creations, only a vanishingly small number will gain any significant amount of cultural relevance.  Chances are, the e-mail to your boss has absolutely no cultural relevance, and neither does the gorgeous piece of art that you framed and put on your wall.  It is not the act of creation that makes culture; it’s what happens to that creation after it leaves the hands of the creator.

We are now in a position to answer the question we asked at the beginning:  Who gets to own our culture?  The answer is this:  The people who popularize it.  Media conglomerates end up owning a lot copyrighted culture because they profit from taking raw creations and promoting them to the status of culture.  And, generally, creators are only too happy to exchange their copyrights for money and a bit of cultural notoriety.

Having answered the initial question, we can now ask a deeper question, the real question, namely, if significant parts of our culture are owned by the media conglomerates that popularize them, is this a desirable state of affairs?  And the answer, I think, is an unequivocal no.

This new question — the real question — is a question about power.  The question is about who has the power to determine what is culturally important and which voices get heard.  And the reason why the answer is no, the reason why we do not want media conglomerates to own our culture is because their choices about what is culturally important are dictated by what makes them the most money, not by the merits of the cultural artifacts that they promote.

When Disney decides to finance another Star Wars movie instead of a biting satire of the political system, that decision is driven by money, not by artistic merit or cultural need.  And, as a business, that’s their prerogative.  But, just because that decision is good for Disney does not make it a good one for our culture.  And our culture is more important than Disney’s bottom line.  As a culture we need to ask:  Who do we want to own our culture?  Who gets the power to decide what is culturally important?  We can do much better than outsourcing this power to giant media conglomerates.  But … how?

They key lies in the mechanism for owning culture:  Copyright.  By allowing companies to buy and concentrate ownership of copyright, we have turned culture into a commodity, where one piece of culture is as good as another as long as it can be bought and sold.  In such a market, it is money that dictates cultural importance, not ideas or artistic merit.

What is the alternative?  One possibility would be to attach copyright to the creator permanently, to make creators the permanent owners and guardians of the culture they create.  The appeals to the intuition that creators should own culture, and perhaps they would do a better job of cultivating culture than corporations.  But, such an arrangement ignores the fact that cultural value truly comes from sharing, not from creation.  If we are to respect that fact, our culture must be owned by all of us.  Which is to say, it should be a commons, owned by no one.

If we want our culture to be a marketplace of ideas, where the best ideas rise to the top and gain the most cultural resonance, we cannot allow it to be a marketplace of commerce, where the most successful ideas are the ones with the most money behind them.  To achieve that, to de-commodify our culture, we cannot allow culture to be owned.  Once culture can be owned, it can be bought and sold.

To do that, our system of copyright must change drastically.  Instead of being a system of ownership — a system of intellectual property — it must become a system for protecting the integrity of our culture.  If copyright is about who has the power to shape our culture and whose voices get heard, it needs to vest that power in the people who are best suited to creating and improving our culture, and it needs to concentrate that power in the hands of the people who have the best track record of creating positive cultural change.

This means creators.  But, not just any creators; it means creators who drive our culture forward.  Rather than rewarding every act of creation with ownership, copyright should reward those who create culturally significant works with the resources to continue creating them.

The mechanism for this is not ownership but reputation.  Rather than controlling who is allowed to access culture, copyright should encourage culture to be shared as widely as possible.  After all, culture is built on sharing.  But, whenever a piece of culture is shared, whenever the stock of that culture begins to rise, that culture should bear the imprint of its creator, and the creator should be indelibly identified with that creation.  In this way, the creators of the most resonant pieces of culture will become culturally significant along with their creations — and will be in a position to reap the benefits.

Copyright would thus become a system for ensuring that social power flows to the most culturally significant people rather than to people who are famous for being famous.  Imagine a world where we had never heard of Paris Hilton but Marie Curie had attained equivalent status and social power.

Achieving such a system in today’s political environment seems … unrealistic to say the least.  And, exploring such a radical change to copyright in depth would like require a book or two (or a documentary).  So, in envisioning this new kind of copyright system, I do not expect to make it a reality.  But, in all the reading I’ve done about copyright over the years (and it’s quite a lot), I’ve often felt that the problems of copyright have been much better explained than any sort of vision for what copyright could be.  Perhaps that’s why copyright seems to have progressively become worse for culture rather than better.

So, in honour of World IP Day (though probably not in the spirit intended by WIPO), I hope I have articulated a vision of copyright that could enliven and enrich our culture rather than restrict it.  As imperfect as it is, at least it holds a glimpse of a better system.