Creativity and the Social Contract

As a writer, photographer and generally creative person, I would like nothing better than an enforceable, predictable social contract that codifies the relationship between creator and society at large. But the fact of the matter is that in this day and age it’s just not reasonable to expect anything other than a rather ephemeral set of notions that rely on nothing more than the goodwill of the majority of the audience.

In short, I don’t think we really have any choice but to do what minstrels, painters, actors and countless other artists have done since time immemorial: Throw ourselves at the mercy of society and rely on the kindness of strangers to make a living out of a lifestyle. It’s often unjust and occasionally cruel, but I just don’t see a workable alternative.

Tangled up amidst all the talk about the imminent demise of newspapers, the subversive effect of Free, the purported damage done by Peer to Peer ‘leeches’ and various other riffs on the imbalance that new technology has created between creator and consumer is the often unexamined conclusion that copyright as a regime for encouraging creativity in modern society is simply unworkable on the Internet.

That leaves us with two options: We can continue to tinker with copyright, attempting to redefine fair use, to place reasonable penalties (or at least disincentives) on unauthorised copying… ultimately, to renegotiate the compromise that lies at the heart of the concept.

That’s a commendable, fundamentally reasonable approach that unfortunately ignores the fact that digital information is immune to copyright enforcement. The practical ‘right’ to make copies is the very essence of digital technology. Its usefulness is predicated on the fact that data is infinitely mutable and that copies cost as close to nothing as makes no difference. To pretend that we can place anything more than voluntary limits on this capability is dangerously naive.

Alternatively, we can scrap copyright, go back to first principles and examine in detail what the rights of the creator really are.

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