The Post-Copyright Era?

By Lynne Conner, Chair and Associate Professor, Colby College
Building on Alex's, Bill's and Nathaniel's points, I'm interested in exploring the root system of the concept of "cultural rights."  How do we, for example, map the relationship between the emergence of the "single author" (the named composer, playwright, choreographer, painter) in the western tradition and the (perceived) dilemma over artists' agency in the re-mix digital era?  The idea that a single artist could "own" his or her aesthetic output is slippery historically: Sophocles was a named playwright but his Oedipus Rex was essentially community property; two thousand years later Shakespeare was identified and to some extent celebrated as the sole author of Hamlet but shared the production rights with the other shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain's Men and with every drama poacher in London (the Pit was reportedly filled with people scribbling down the good bits).  In 1879 and without the benefit of an operational international copyright law, Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert were forced to premiere The Pirates of Penzance in New York rather than London in order to protect their royalties from the real pirates of the day--the scores of American production companies producing G & S operettas without buying the rights.  A lesser known but very instructive example of the trajectory of cultural tension over aesthetic rights is the case of the early modern dancer Loie Fuller, creator of the Serpentine Dance and its attendant craze during the early 1890s.  Fuller was a brilliant inventor-artist who had had the foresight to copyright the dance.  But despite her efforts, a judge in the New York Circuit Court threw out her suit to stop imitators, noting that dance movement cannot be the subject of copyright because it "can hardly be called dramatic."  In other words, it took a long time for the wider culture to settle into a collective understanding about the nature of authorial control.

So what happens to this concept mapping in what I'm calling, somewhat cheekily, the post-copyright digital era?  If the democratization of 21st century culture is underway largely because of an open-source ethos and the dismantling of the professional/amateur binary (which itself didn't actually get going with any real traction until well into the Renaissance), what exactly does it mean to "author" a work of art for the next generation of artists?  The historian in me needs to understand how this changing etymology affects (and perhaps negates?) existing strategies of action so that we don't get stuck in Nathaniel's "policy determinism."

July 21, 2010 4:30 AM | | Comments (2) |


When I look at the Parthenon, Roman sculpture, or the great cathedrals of Europe (and the guilds that created them) I get the idea that the amateur/professional binary had a bit of traction before the renaissance. It also seems most classical music institutions also still believe in the dichotomy. There aren’t too many amateurs in the Chicago Symphony. Imagining that the amateur/professional binary has been erased when it hasn’t is an example of how postmodern orthodoxy leads to delusion.

I like Casey’s idea of how the territorial exclusions of copyright led to the free exchange of ideas and thus the spread of the “Enlightenment.” Today things seem different. I love Pandora Radio, but it is blocked in Europe where I live part-time. I had to install an identity cloaker in my computer to stream it. It connects to a server in the US that connects to Pandora and then bounces the signal back to me.

Territories will also complicate this in our networked, globalized era. Rights have always been more fluid than we perhaps imagine, however -- at the dawn of print licensing (not quite yet copyright), people were allowed to republish at will in other territories, provided they didn't bring that reprint into the vicinity where the original work was first introduced. This actually went a long way towards spreading enlightenment through Europe.

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