Copyright for a social species

26 July 2010

Arguments about the proper scope of copyright protection focus on the economic consequences of varying degrees of protection. Most analysts view copyright as an economic phenomenon, and the size and health of our copyright industries measure the success of copyright policies. The constitutional text granting Congress the copyright power and the nature of special interest lobbying naturally create this economic focus; but this is a serious mistake. An exclusively economic focus makes no more sense than measuring the nutritional merits of our food supply from the size and profitability of the fast food industry.

The expressive culture that copyright protects arose tens of millennia before markets developed and mediums of exchange were invented. Cultural artifacts, from cave paintings to grave goods and myths of origin define our species as human. For our ancestral societies, whose hunting and gathering existence was always marginal at best, expressive culture was extraordinarily expensive to sustain, yet everywhere they did. No consensus has emerged as to what purpose expressive culture serves, but its universality strongly suggests that it served an important social purpose, perhaps one necessary for survival.

The technology that now places the world’s culture, past and present, at everyone’s fingertips (poised over a keyboard) has also quietly worked a profound change in the way we experience expressive culture. It has largely eliminated the live performance and replaced it with recorded media. Books have supplanted storytellers, records have replaced musicians, television and movies have superseded dance and drama. Of equal significance, technology has changed a communal and social experience into a private and solitary one. We no longer gather and experience our culture as cohesive groups bound by ties of kinship or other bonds of mutual obligation. These significant changes brought by technological innovation have occurred without comment or examination.

As with environmental harms like climate change, we might confront unanticipated injuries to the social fabric that cannot easily be remedied if we fail to adequately comprehend what technology has done to our experience of expressive culture. To do this we need to understand the social experience of expressive culture. This perspective also gives us a policy objective by which to structure copyright besides the economic statistics provided by the copyright industries. Until such time as we know the consequences of the decline of social experience from expressive culture, and are assured that these are not significant, we can with little adverse economic impact, revise copyright policies with a goal of reviving the social experience. Not only might this avoid the unknown and potentially disrupting consequences, but given the social creation of much culture, it may generate a new bounty of expressive works. Surprisingly, minor changes in copyright will strengthen the social experience of expressive culture.

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Robert E. Suggs, 2010, Copyright for a social species, School of Law (UMaryland), viewed 20 January 2017, <http://apo.org.au/node/22140>.

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