Monday, March 10, 2008

the economics of creation

“By the time Joseph Conrad achieved popular success and financial stability for the first time, with Chance… he was worn out and in poor health with his best work behind him.”

– from The Times Literary Supplement, February 29, 2008

Good for Mr. Conrad then, that copyright gave him the opportunity to realize some reward from his best work. Recognition that fine, sometimes brilliant work may exist in a creator’s back catalogue is, presumably, one of the reasons we have designed copyright to last beyond a creator’s actual period of creation – and is one of the problems with a new business model based solely on active promotion. His health threatened by years of struggle and financial worry, Joseph Conrad was in no position to go on tour and sell Chance t-shirts.

"His only visit to America was in 1923 for a publicity tour, a trip made just fifteen months before his death. He gave just one reading, at a private house in New York, but there were reporters on the dock when he arrived; he enjoyed being lionized, but took to his bed as soon as he was back home in Kent."

And since his back catalogue saw meteoric commercial success after his death, isn’t it marvelous that copyright was in place to allow Conrad to provide for his beneficiaries through continued intellectual property rights?

Did these continued rights damage our culture by locking Mr. Conrad’s work away from us? Did they suppress the creativity of future creators by making the work inaccessible for rework? Ask Francis Ford Coppola, who reworked Conrad’s Heart of Darkness into one of the greatest, most successful films of the last half century, Apocalypse Now.

5 comments:

Chris Brand said...

If the guy installing cables in my office today falls ill tomorrow and can't work, he won't get to continue to draw an income from his work over the last few days, either.

Should my employer be paying him royalties to ensure that his heirs are ok, too ?

John said...

hey Chris,

Shouldn't we really be wondering if the guy Russell hires to skip pages for him because he unfortunately broke his arm and can no longer self-censor -- that guy -- if he falls down and breaks his crown so that he no longer has the ability to receive the messages Russell sends about what to let him read and what not to...

Must we really keep setting up these false comparisons to justify the removal of creator rights that actually benefit all of society, including the users?

There is delayed economic value in a creator's back catalogue. Our law recognizes and honours this value. After Conrad died, people were lining up to part with their money in order to read his works. What's wrong with that money going to Conrad's heirs?

Some economic goods have royalties attached to them to compensate for delayed or speculative market effects. Your man there was hired to provide a service, under a contract that compensates him well for the service. Are you calling for all economic product to fall into the service category?

BTW, I watched a bit of Titanic the other night on a cable channel from Georgia. That movie is bad to begin with. With the nude scene cut out, it's intolerable. I hired someone to come over and turn the channel to Saturday Night Live around midnight. Interestingly, I did not tell him to then go and turn the channels on all the TVs in my neighbourhood, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure my neighbours also thought the movie was crap.

Infringer said...

"And since his back catalogue saw meteoric commercial success after his death, isn’t it marvelous that copyright was in place to allow Conrad to provide for his beneficiaries through continued intellectual property rights?"

Well, JS Bach's works became quite unpopular for over a hundred years after his death. Many Vivaldi's works were lost for over 300 years. Perhaps if copyright was measured in centuries, the great great great great descendants of these poor composers, and others, would also have been looked after? Would that be just?


"Did these continued rights damage our culture by locking Mr. Conrad’s work away from us?"

To take this question and offer a derived Coppola movie as an argument against it doesn't work. First of all, was the book still under copyright when the movie was made? If not, it would argue against the point you are trying to make. Second, Francis Coppola worked for a big studio with lots of lawyers. He didn't have to worry about IP rights. That's what the lawyers were for.

In today's environment we have fantastic technology for creation and distribution at virtually no cost. We have a population of creators which makes all the creators of the past minuscule by comparison. The majority of these creators would be considered amateurs, and therefore lack the legal and financial resources of past creators. Do long and complicated copyright laws damage our culture in this new environment? I would say, absolutely, without a doubt, YES.

The priority therefore in copyright reform MUST BE simplifying copyright laws through requiring registration, shorter terms, and expanded fair use rights. Much of this goes against Berne, but that does not make it any less important. Only more difficult.

John said...

Infringer,

Our current copyright laws would not provide for 300 years of descendents, so why are you so upset about that?

Coppola didn't have to worry about IP rights because he had lawyers to do that? So, who paid the lawyers to do the due diligence on copyright? I would imagine it was American Zoetrope, Coppola's independent film company, the one who produced AN outside of that evil Hollywood studio system you seem to despise.

Whether Heart of Darkness was still under a term of copyright has no bearing here. Either Coppola paid for film-adaptation rights under copyright, or he waited for the term to expire. Either way, he respected the rights of the original creator, and an excellent movie was made. Win Win for culture and its creators.

You seem to think that because a new population of creators has the wieght of numbers behind them, they shouldn't have to follow the rules the rest of us do. That's an odd reason for lawlessness. I wonder if you use it in other areas of society where you feel unreasonably restricted.

Infringer said...

"Our current copyright laws would not provide for 300 years of descendents, so why are you so upset about that?"

The point you seemed to miss was that if copyright royalties a few decades beyond death was good, then so too perhaps might copyright royalties a few centuries beyond death. From your original statement, that would be a fair conclusion. I was taking your example to the extreme to demonstrate that perhaps it should not be accepted at face value. Again, a discussion with you regarding what a fair copyright term is would be interesting.



"Coppola didn't have to worry about IP rights because he had lawyers to do that? So, who paid the lawyers to do the due diligence on copyright? I would imagine it was American Zoetrope, Coppola's independent film company, the one who produced AN outside of that evil Hollywood studio system you seem to despise."

And the point you missed here was that Coppola was not working out of his basement. I fully expect he had lawyers for this purpose. Who paid them is irrelevant. Whatever company it was could afford them, and he needed them. Most people these days cannot afford them which is really a problem when most people are now creators and copyright law is designed for lawyers.


"Whether Heart of Darkness was still under a term of copyright has no bearing here. Either Coppola paid for film-adaptation rights under copyright, or he waited for the term to expire. Either way, he respected the rights of the original creator, and an excellent movie was made. Win Win for culture and its creators."

It has every bearing here. If he waited until after the copyright had expired it could reasonably be argued that the wait was due to the burden of copyright. This delays the creation of his work, which in turns delays or inhibits further creations as well. If it delayed his work with his resources who is to say what might have come of the truly small independent adaptation. Perhaps it was never written as a result.



"You seem to think that because a new population of creators has the wieght of numbers behind them, they shouldn't have to follow the rules the rest of us do. That's an odd reason for lawlessness. I wonder if you use it in other areas of society where you feel unreasonably restricted."

Actually I think rather than not following the rules, it is an argument to change the rules. Yes I do carry it over to other areas of society. Morgentaler used strength in numbers to change unjust abortion laws. The civil rights movement in the States used strength in numbers to change segregation laws. The bottom line is if enough people disagree with a law, the law MUST change, or totalitarian methods must be utilized to enforce it. This is where copyright law is now. I think copyright laws are unjust. If enough other people agree with me, then they will have to change. It is what prevented Prentice from introducing his copyright legislation, and it will be what forces him to honestly include real user rights in new copyright reform.