Copyright is in tremendous flux at the moment; governments all over the world are considering what their copyright systems should look like in the 21st century, and it’s probably a good idea to nail down what we want copyright to do. Otherwise the question “Is copyright working?” becomes as meaningless as “How long is a piece of string?”
Let’s start by saying that there is only one regulation that would provide everyone who wants to be an artist with a middle-class income. It’s a very simple rule: “If you call yourself an artist, the government will pay you £40,000 a year until you stop calling yourself an artist.”
Short of this wildly unlikely regulation, full employment in the arts is a beautiful and improbable dream. Certainly, no copyright system can attain this. If copyright is to have winners and losers, then let’s start talking about who we want to see winning, and what victory should be.
In my world, copyright’s purpose is to encourage the widest participation in culture that we can manage – that is, it should be a system that encourages the most diverse set of creators, creating the most diverse set of works, to reach the most diverse audiences as is practical.
That is, I don’t want a copyright system that precludes making money on art, since there are some people who make good art who, credibly, would make less of it if there wasn’t any money to be had. But at the same time, I don’t think that you can judge a copyright system by how much money it delivers to creators – imagine a copyright system for films that allowed only one single 15-minute short film to be made every year, which, by dint of its rarity, turned over £1bn. If only one person gets to make one movie, I don’t care how much money the system brings in, it’s not as good as one in which lots of people get to make lots of movies.
Diversity of participation matters because participation in the arts is a form of expression and, here in the west’s liberal democracies, we take it as read that the state should limit expression as little as possible and encourage it as much as possible. It seems silly to have to say this, but it’s worth noting here because when we talk about copyright, we’re not just talking about who pays how much to get access to which art, we’re talking about a regulation that has the power to midwife, or strangle, enormous amounts of expressive speech.