· 6 min read
Copyright and Ownership in the Digital Age
What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing!
Written by Tiefling
“It is easier to imagine the end of the world
Than the end of copyright law”
In a world where 100,000 songs, 3.2 billion images, and 720,000 hours of video are released to the internet every day, where music and art are available free on demand and are valued accordingly, it can be easy for musicians and artists to become lead astray. It becomes natural to try and stake out what makes you you, to find your shtick, and to put yours and your peers’ work through purity tests. There becomes a culture of competition between peers rather than camaraderie, and a pressure to do great things alone. This individualistic and competitive approach is implicitly encouraged; a bootstrap method to girlboss your way to being the next billboard charting viral artist, or maybe at least the next indie phenom. This is fundamentally misguided as it misses that music and the arts have always been a group endeavor. All work is inevitably and inextricably tied to and influenced by the work that surrounds it and the work that preceded it.
Enshrined in the US Constitution is the power for congress to grant “authors and inventors” exclusive rights to their writings and discoveries for a limited time in order to “promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” The first U.S. copyright act, established in 1790, did not include music but did include books, and in 1794 Benjamin Carr copyrighted the first ever mid song using the argument that his sheet music counted as a book. The idea of ownership to the rights to art is an entirely modern invention that can be tied to the development of the printing press, the industrialization of Europe, and the start of the American capitalist project.
The idea of copyright is, from a capitalistic standpoint, to protect the interests of creators. Artistic copyright is an attempt to incorporate art into the industrial world and the capitalist project, and to give artists a way to protect what is theirs and make money off the fruits of their labor.
This sounds lovely, but under close inspection in practice it falls apart. It costs roughly $50 USD to register a copyright in the US, a process many DIY artists go through even though they will likely never make a fraction of that for their work. Further, registering that copyright doesn’t guarantee any real protection unless you also have a legal team. Under the current system, art doesn’t pay and copyright doesn’t help protect independent artists from having their ideas stolen.
It is important to note, however, that copyright law is not the fundamental problem here. Art theft and piracy are not why artists often need to work a second job, this is the fault of the way the art and streaming economy are fundamentally structured. Appeals to copyright and ownership, as have been common in recent discussions about AI art, distract from the core problem – a broken art economy that can’t or won’t value creative labor, an economy whose norms and rules and institutions must be rejected.
And this is all to say nothing about how stealing/borrowing/sampling/training a database on other artists' work has been necessary for some of the most central developments in music and the arts in the last century, a practice copyright and individualist notions of creation explicitly prohibit.
In 1953, Rauschenberg released his famous Erased De Kooning Drawing which, as the name suggests, was another famous artist's work erased and presented as a new piece. Degradative processes and processes that involve borrowing another artist's work or ideas to build something new have given us many fantastic and thoughtful artistic and musical movements including sampling in hip hop and vaporwave, and upcycled clothing in fashion. Large swaths of classical music and jazz music in practice involve the constant reinterpretation of older material, as does DJing. Led Zeppelin’s whole discography, chart topping hits like Bittersweet Symphony, classics like Ice Ice Baby, many Kanye West songs, everything Girl Talk and The Avalanches have ever done – none of this could exist without the rejection of an individualist mythos of creation. It’s something that even this publication in particular encourages through The Zone sample and stem pack drops.
The arts make up a living breathing cyborgian organism that grows and changes through input from millions of sources around the world. Within networks of artists and the eternal practice of borrowing and taking influence from those who came before you, this organism has always existed, before copyright and before capitalism. The individualistic mythology of art creation that exists today is borne out of capitalism and celebrity culture, and is fundamentally at odds with the reality of how art progresses. And worse, it might lead artists to making art they aren’t interested in or don't enjoy making in order to produce stale repetitions of past successes rather than trying something new, or to compete with the people that should be their biggest allies.
It sucks when bigger artists or institutions punch down and take influence and ideas from artists smaller than them without fair credit or compensation. I am not here to refute that but there is, practically, nothing that can be done in contemporary market systems, and it seems pointless to waste time worrying about it. The proper response to an oversaturated media landscape that does not value the arts is not to give in to this individualist mythology and to make appeals to copyright and ownership. You need to work with others, to make the work you truly want to make, to break the rules of these restrictive institutions that don't serve you, to try your best to do something original even though you know you never can. Most importantly, you must strive to build new institutions that actually do serve artists.
I write this piece as the indie artist who has tried to do it all on her own, who tried to play the rules and girlboss her way to the top. I put my music through unnecessary purity tests and avoided doing things I surely would have liked the sound of. I never used samples and felt an immense guilt if I dared use a synth preset or other tools that might have made my life easier. And I did it all alone.
Only recently have I “gone outside” and everything has been all the better for it. I have learned so much more about myself and my work through being in the world and talking to real people. Community is what makes art worthwhile. Getting to meet and work with and learn from artists you admire is what makes this worthwhile. Ownership, purity, pettiness, and glamor are not.
Around this time last year, I set my mind on learning to work with a few genres I had been listening to but had never tried to make, including house and drum and bass. As I dove deeper into these styles and read more into sampling and copyright law, I was discouraged – there was basically no way to legally release music in these genres without clearing samples that, for an indie artist, would be unclearable. I had my joker moment, and decided I no longer cared. I then wrote what I believe to be one of my most thoughtful albums yet because of it: an unabashedly sample heavy album that speaks to the future through work from the past, a long way away from the girl who was registering a copyright for her first album.