Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Shakespeare the Capitalist

In response to the column by Scott Turow, et. al., "Would the Bard Have Survived the Web?" (New York Times, Feb.14), I offer the following response (also submitted as a Letter to the Editor, although I doubt it will appear there). Turow and his colleagues seem to feel that copyright, and its strict enforcement, creating a "pay wall" around original works, is essential to supporting authors, and endangered by various sharing and copyleft practices. This is my reply.

However much one may applaud the motives of an essay seeking to highlight the importance of remuneration to authors, this op-ed contains so many factual errors and gaffes that its effect can only be to undercut its own argument.

As the essay admits, there was no copyright law in Shakespeare's day; instead, printing was regulated by the Stationers' Company, and plays by the Master of the Revels. The good money was to be had from the plays; although there were plenty of pirated texts of Shakespeare's plays in his day, the only thing he and his company really worried about was that no rival actually staged them. It's much like the situatuion with musicians today; since MP3's are cheap and readily available, live performance is by far more remunerative.

Copyright, a new concept, may have arrived in 1703, but being an author was not profitable until well over a century later; there were simply not enough literate people, and books were too costly. It was the increase in literacy, along with advances in cheap printing technologies, which made authorship profitable. A case in point would be the career of Dickens, who became perhaps the wealthiest author in British history up until that time; his books were serialized in inexpensive installments, but sold so well that he grew rich off them, despite the fact that international copyright at the time was weak, and in places like America pirated editions were rampant.

Bear in mind that the orignal UK copyright term was only for 14 years. The twentieth century witnessed an enormous incease in the breadth and length of copyright protection, which now can endure up to 70 years after the author's death, or even 120 years in some cases. This was not done mainly to benefit authors, who would be dead long before it expired, but coroporate entities such as the Disney company, whose stable of characters from Mickey Mouse to Pinnochio, created "for hire," was in peril of falling into the public domain. This is not necessarily progress.

Authors today enjoy robust copyright protection, and with printed books and e-books at least, their labors are well-protected in most of the developed world. And yet, as with musicians, filmmakers, and poets, some of the impetus for their labor, and much of the context of their creativity, depends upon what has come before. The "folk" tradition, in which riffing on the work of another is a compliment and not a curse, is thousands of years older than copyright, and its results are none too shabby: The Iliad, Beowulf, or the Kalevala to name but a few. Modern forms such as Jazz depend on the ability to "quote" and alter what has come before.

Some authors and critics today hope that this kind of creativity can bloom again, a wild flower outside the copyright greenhouse. They put their work on the line by licensing it via Creative Commons and other "copyleft" systems. But this is not a threat to commercially successful authors, or those who seek to become one.

The theatre died after Shakespeare's day, that's true enough. But it was not because intellectual property was poorly protected or reimbursed; it was because of the anti-intellectual passion of the Puritans, who felt that any imaginative representation of human activity was an offense to Heaven. That force, and not the supposed decay of copyright protection, is the greatest enemy of creative genius today.

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