Intellectual Property Rights and Copyright Law

Around 1985 Ivan the Cat, a local Cranbrook animator, spent many hours of labour creating a short three minute animated feature that he called “The Happy Tiger”. He drew and coloured each of the individual cells in the classic Walt Disney tradition of old. This was a labour of love, and, of course, an apprenticeship in his chosen profession.  Upon completing the art work he decided for the sound track to use the classic Bix Beiderbecke recording of “At the Jazz Band Ball”. It was a bouncy happy tune that suited the theme of the feature. Besides, it had that sparkling bell like sound of Bix’s cornet. The recording dates from October 5, 1927 and to use this nearly sixty year old recording the copyright owners wanted twenty to thirty thousand dollars !!!!. Who were these copyright owners? It certainly wasn’t Bix. He died August 6, 1931 from a catastrophic alcoholic collapse. If it was his family’s estate that owned the copyright then that would be the supreme irony. Bix was estranged from his family. They didn’t approve of his career choice and they were barely on speaking terms when he died alone in his Queen’s apartment. He was only 28 years old. I suspect the copyright is owned by  a music corporation that had no part in supporting, nurturing or caring about this talented individual. To this day that corporation continues to profit from the talents of the long dead jazz man.

Over the past couple of hundred years there has been a determined effort by the corporate section to plunder “the commons” and take what was nominally free and turn it into a profit centre. Whether it be land, water, beach front access, what ever, if it can be usurped by the corporate community and turned to profit then it makes good business sense and we all know what is good for business is good for everyone. Right! So under the banner of intellectual rights parliaments are in full swing to enshrine draconian intellectual property rights into law. The logic is that artists need the protection of the law to ensure that they have full access to the fruits of their labor. I doubt anybody would refute that logic. But is that what is actually going to happen? Will the average artist ever get to share in this new found bounty? Probably not.

In the discussion around the issue it becomes painfully obvious that the corporate sector and the law makers have no concept of how the creative process works. They work on the assumption that any given artist, artisan, writer, or computer programmer creates intellectual property out of thin air. There is no credence given to notion that artists frequently take what is already there and re-interpret and remould the material into something new and original. In the head long rush to protect what is rightful and just the powers that be will completely disrupt the creative process. Already there is software out there to analyze recordings to determine if there is any content that may be construed as an infringement of copyright. So if the software detects a fragment that it deems controversial then the creative process becomes still born. The artist become too frighten to complete the creative process or market the end product.

Social commentators are having a field day with the stupidity of what is being proposed by the governments of the land. For a sampling go to YouTube and check Cory Doctorow’s seminars and discussions on the subject. Better yet get a hold of the documentary DVD “Ripped – A Remix Manifesto”. This is a brilliant over view of the issue.  When, and if, the proposed legislation sees the light of day, the big question is will it be enforceable. And if so, to what end? In reality it is meant to protect the property rights of the film and recording industries and not ‘the poor starving artists’. It is all an exercise in futility.  Given the rate of technical change and the current shear mass of infractions of the law it will be unenforceable. And that’s the old story; once a law becomes unenforceable it is no longer the law. Just take a look at the recent legislation in Quebec meant to curb student protests. Despite the draconian nature of the new laws it has failed to stop the student protests. Students in mass just simply ignore the law and the prospect of arresting thousands of demonstrators is too stupid to even contemplate. So, in the end will copyright laws play out like the old anti-drug laws? Huge amounts of time, money and energy going to the non-productive efforts of making petty criminals out of copyright “abusers”, clogging up the legal system and filling jails with non-criminals.

In one’s darker moments a conspiracy theorist could well imagine the Harper government changing the legal system and building more prisons, despite the fact that criminal acts are on the decline, to accommodate a whole new class of criminals – the copyright violator. To what end? Possibly the privatization of jails to create more wealth for the corporate sector?

– Rod Wilson


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