By George Howard
(Follow George on Twitter)

I have spent twenty years or so being inspired by artists.  Watching them work and refine their craft.  Watching them sacrifice so much for their art; servicing a muse that they didn’t necessarily ask for, but one they couldn’t ignore.  The one realization that I’ve come away with from these years of watching is that artists (and, I use the word inclusively: musicians, poets, filmmakers, et al.), are undercompensated.  Certainly, there are exceptions to this rule; undeniably, there are artists who are overcompensated.  Most artists, however, when they tally up their compensation on a per-hour basis, earn a low wage.

Now, the servicing of the muse is not compelled by money, but, rather, other impulses.  However, absent some type of financial return for the artists’ work, bad things happen: artists begin to believe that their work is without value, and they stop; or, artists have to subsidize their artistic income by working a soul-crushing job that eventually diminishes their ability/desire/time to create…and they stop.  In either case, art stops being created.  This to me is unacceptable.  I defy anyone to give me a good argument against the creation of more art.

All of this is why I react negatively to proponents of the so-called “copyleft” movement.  As a bit of background, the copyleft movement originated from software development, where hobbyist programmers desired to make software free (or very cheap) in order to reduce/eliminate piracy.  There are parallels and inter-connectivity with this movement and the Open Source initiative that makes a program/application’s underlying source code accessible to other programmers so that they may use it as they see fit (to build upon, etc.).

The musical fork of this movement is most widely represented in the woefully misunderstood Creative Commons initiative.  Developed by Lawrence Lessig, et al., Creative Commons provides artists with a means to opt out of certain of the exclusive rights that are automatically granted to authors when they record a song or write it down (also known as fixing an original work in a tangible medium).

There are several justifications for an artist or songwriter to give up copyrights.  The first is reasonable: that by providing a means for artists to more easily exchange rights, reduces transaction costs, and thus encourages collaboration.  The second — that current copyright law enforces and encourages a restrictive permission culture to the detriment of the public good — is not.  By this I mean that the idea that copyright somehow impedes creativity and artistic development is just plain wrong.  As I stated above, what really impedes creativity and artistic development is the artist’s perception that his or her music is valueless/the inability of the artist to monetize his or her output.

The real impact (intentional or otherwise) of the very vocal arguments put forth by Creative Commons with respect to copyright’s contribution to “restrictive permission culture” is that it leads people to make to an incorrect and dangerous conclusion.  People begin to believe that copyright is somehow bad or evil, and that anyone who wants to enforce copyright is anti-progress, anti-collaboration, anti-public benefit, etc.

This view implies that an artist whose sole asset is (or is directly related to) his or her artistic creation is somehow a non-progressive asshole for desiring payment for his or her work.

To be clear, a Creative Commons license is nothing more than a way to opt out of certain of the six exclusive rights you get with a copyright, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  One of the beautiful things about copyright is that you (and only you) have the right to do whatever you want with your rights…including give them away.  Creative Commons, on its surface, simply strives to make this process of giving away certain of your rights easier.  However, the judgment passed by this organization on any creator who doesn’t allow his or her work to be used by whomever so desires (the vague mantra of “information wants to be free” – full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing) is not only ridiculous but also dangerous.

An artist’s copyrights are her assets.  They are hers to do with what she will (again, including give them,or a portion of them, away).  No creator should be shamed, embarrassed or be made to feel guilty if she chooses to sell her art.

Artists tend to have — at best — an uncomfortable relationship with the monetization of their work, and need no encouragement to devalue it.  Rather, artists need to be reminded that their contribution to this deeply troubled world is valuable.  The exchange of value between an artist and his or her fans, is a means to allow the artist to continue creating art, and thus is crucial.

We don’t need an organization of high brow philosophical “all information and music should be free” people trying to convince a starving musician to forgo the $1 that he or she made to buy something off the Taco Bell $0.99 menu for the better of humanity.

What we do need is an environment that reinforces the value of art.  Copyright is one of the key elements of rule of law, and rule of law is a key element to an autonomous culture.  When we begin stripping away rules based on one person’s (or group’s) opinions of what is right/wrong/just, we move away from autonomy, and closer to fascism.  Fascism is not good for art.


George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee.  He is most easily found on Twitter at: twitter.com/gah650

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