Copyrights: a choice of no-choice for artists and third world countries; the public domain is losing anyway, by Joost Smiers (1)

note on the author:
Joost Smiers is director of the Centre of Research of the Utrecht School of the Arts, the Netherlands, and visiting professor at the Department of World Arts and Cultures at the UCLA, Los Angeles. His last book is Rough Weather. Essays on the Social and Cultural Conditions for the Arts in Europe in the 1990s (published in Dutch and in French). His present research is on the consequences of world free trade, globalization, and new communication technologies for the arts in different parts of the world.




The artist too should have a chance to make a living from his or her work. Therefore we should have a strong enforcement of the collection of copyrights or authors rights (the European concept) (2). This sounds reasonable.

However, one may wonder whether the philosophy of the intellectual property system, which should provide artists an income, works out as reasonable as it looks like. Moreover, one must consider seriously the question whether the existing system of copyright or authors rights does still work and can work any longer. This article will deal with four questions which all together show that there is arising a problem for artists, for cultural life in third world countries, and for the public domain which deserves the unhindered access to the cultural heritage of the past and the present.

First, there is the phenomenon of large scale piracy which undermines the proper working of the system. One may doubt whether even fierce hunting on pirates ever may be successful in a world in which uncontrolled trade and deregulation are the norm. Isn't this world an eldorado for people who try to evade the scarce laws which are left over?

Second, artists and cultural enterprises in poor and so called less developed countries will nearly not get benefits from authors rights, not now and unlikely even in the future, and that is the case for a variety of reasons which will be discussed later in this article.

Third, it is not sure that artists will continue to be the main benefitors of the system of intellectual property rights which originally was meant to give them a fair remuneration for their creations. It will happen more and more everywhere in the world that artists will get some money for their work as may be hoped, but they have to sell their rights to more or less big corporations or other kind of holders of copyrights.

Fourth, the seemingly absolute character of the concept of intellectual property rights should be discussed just at the moment in which we see that corporations are taking rights on all which may give them a profit. However, who is so original that he or she may claim to have created or invented something out of nothing? And who is so arrogant to think that there is only a private interest to be protected in the resort of intellectual and creative activities of human beings and that the public interest, the common good may be neglected?

Intellectual property rights are big business at the turn of the century. Where there are winners at the commercial front there must be loosers as well. Who are they? To name a few, we must think of third world countries, artists, and the public interest. While private property interests are so dominant it will be a hell of a work to ask attention for other legitimate interests concerning the domain of the human intellectual and creative activities.

In the organized world of copyrights piracy seems the only big problem to solve. Maybe it can't be solved at all and maybe it is a minor problem compared to the question whether the creative and intellectual forthbringing in the world can be assured if intellectual and creative activities continue to be seen as objects for profit only.


So what to do?


(1) The author likes to thank Suzanne Capiau, Jaap Klazema, Krister Malm and Gerard Mom for their most valuable and supportive comments on the draft of this article.

(2) In this text the differences between copyrights and authors rights are not so relevant that they should be discussed extensively.





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