On Copyrights

copyrightsThere he is – the young art student – in the corner, sporting a slouch, worn blue jeans and a faded ironic t-shirt, standing in front of the canvases he submitted for this month’s class show; large, blue, sci-fi landscapes, which, from a distance, are beautiful. They look like heavenly, undulating space-scapes of sky and stars.

But move five steps closer, and the illusion fades. He is in the corner, yes, but the slouch is affected — he’d be more comfortable standing straight. His worn blue jeans? Brand new, but distressed. His ironic t-shirt? That once most noble badge of indie cred? It’s been on sale at the Urban Outfitters down the street for a month. And the paintings – the paintings! Up-close, they show themselves as crude copies of those prints featured in the discounted Salvador Dali calendars sold at Barnes and Noble: forced line, muddy colors, uninteresting ideas.

What’s offensive is not the young student’s pose, for at least he is trying to do something with his image. And the paintings, while bad, are not so bad that his art school scholarship would be threatened. No, what’s most worrisome is that he doesn’t know he’s posing, doesn’t know that the elements he’s so carefully cultivated as “his own,” are not. He’s exuding “originality” in the most culturally acceptable way, possibly the only way he knows: he buys it.

Those shelves of products that our young hero peruses in his off-time– all copyrighted, patented, or otherwise “pre-approved” for consumption – give him the feeling that he has freedom of choice, while, in fact, his freedoms are limited. “Have a problem? Use this face cream. Buy a car. Wear these blue jeans.”

These are his only options.

We should feel pity for him – after all, he’s lived in Pasadena his whole life, he doesn’t know. This is what he thinks is edgy.

Because he has taste, he makes do with what he has. But because he is young, he is a bit too proud. More seasoned personalities whisper to each other: His shirt, the off-white one? With the cartoon of a red-bearded lad, holding close his seven bottles of bear, stating, “Irish 7-Course Meal?” Done. His blue jeans? 700 dollars, faded in all the right places, do not connote the roughshod life. Oh no, they scream, “Mom buys my clothes!” And the Art. Oh God, the Art.

What can save our young hero, apart from extended sit-down sessions with Roland Barthes or concentrated perusals of Frederick Jamison (both of which are, for the most part, impossible to comprehend at such an age)? What can pull away the cowl of ignorance, freeing the young artist from that most hated of appropriations – derivative?

Ready? Here comes the answer – and it’s not drugs, religious experiences, or world travel. The answer is that he must study and learn the copyright laws of United States.

And in order to learn the copyright laws of the United States, he must first know what a copyright is.

Here are the simple definitions, according to onelook.com:

# noun: a document granting exclusive right to publish and sell literary or musical or artistic work
# verb: secure a copyright on a written work

Why is a knowledge of the legal presedence of copyright important to a young artist? Because in order to create, a good artist should know as much as possible about all his tools. This means not just the origins of his fine bristle brush, or the interesting history of the chemistry of his pigments.

While copyright law is not as glamourous as brushes or paint, it is nonetheless as important. For within copyright law lies the secret of what to do after.

And what do American’s do after they’re done? They sell. They horde. And, in turn, they covet, they hide.

While squirreling away money is a good idea, hiding creative output is not. Keeping the creative hidden leads to problems such as our hero’s – too much confidence in too much little.

Our hero’s problems stem from this ignorance – for, despite his fancy education, he is creatively ignorant – too many things have been kept from his eyes.

But wait! you say. Surely it is his responsibility to educate himself! There are libraries, public exhibitions, and teachers.

Of course, these are necessary elements in any person’s education. But our hero cannot personally own a library book, an outdoor concerts, or the mind of a great teacher, and the relative unavilability of ownership of fine works of art encourages a lazy attitude towards authenticity.

Within copyright law, too, lies a history of the role of the Artist within American Society, a role our hero has wanted to play, desperately, for many years. Is it not also his responsibility to know his legal rights?

Sadly, our hero does not know about the Berne Convention, held in Switzerland, in 1886. Led by that most diligent, most empathetic of writers, Victor Hugo. He does not know of Hugo’s obsession with la droit d’auteur.
He does not know most of his European and Asian contemporaries not only consider intellectual property more important than money, but that the status of the artist is more socially powerful than that of entrepreneur.
He does not know that Europe and Asia have historically made political concessions to facilitate their artists’ creativity.
Or that the United States didn’t join the Berne Convention until nearly one hundred years after its inception – on March 1, 1989.

Here is something else he doesn’t know: copyright laws in the United States, had, until 1989, been focused on keeping intellectual property private in order to facilitate economic growth. In other words, in the US, copyright law has historically been a monetary issue, not a creative one…Thus the shelves of products posing as freedom as choice.

And here is something else: thanks to the acceptance of the Berne Convention, which decrees that work belongs to its creator as soon as it’s created, without having to fill out government forms, the tide is turning.

And finally, another fact: the most notable example of progressive copyright translation in the United States is the group called Creative Commons. Creative Commons gives artists the information and encouragement needed to not squirrel their work away, in fear that someone might steal their ideas, but rather, to share and remix their work with the work of others.

And now, for a theoretical leap: This is a necessary step on the incline from being derivative to being truly POSTMODERN.

(Ugh, but why postmodern? Isn’t that old hat? AU CONTRAIRE).

The hallmark of postmodernism is the desire to combine.
And we are at a point in cultural history where the only thing left to do is combine.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Marcel Proust, that most beloved of all neurotic writers, stated as a child that he did could not name a single color as his favorite, but rather, he found the most pleasure in their combinations.

And all postmodern art is a hybrid – a little of this, a little of that – which in turn encourages the creation of the global ego – an ego much less offensive than the ego present in our young hero at the start of this article.

Some say the start of the Enlightenment was thanks to the creation of factory-produced mirrors, which allowed even the most plebian life form to see themselves as individuals. But today, we don’t look to the mirror for accurate reflections. Instead, we gaze into the computer monitor. Our thoughts, words, and images, regardless of original source, create a collective brain, one that can be harnessed most powerfully through an artist’s understanding of copyright.

And even science is beginning to consider human beings in a similar way – the millions of individuals that populate the Earth are really a single, throbbing organism, a human membrane, if you will, that covers our planet, hovering, blue and bulbous, like a helium balloon bobbing about in the milky way.

Which takes us back to our hero’s work. Remember? Those great blue swathes of sky and stars that looked so good from a distance? Does he know about Turner? And if he did, would not his unpleasant ego dissolve, leaving him – his ideas and his work – behind to do the talking. And would not his art – our art – be improved?

Here’s the The Fancy PDF, as published in “Let Go” magazine