Here's another article on the Green policy on copyright. It's the most strongly-worded one I've yet seen. It raises the now-familiar cry of how fourteen years' copyright does nothing to protect creative's livelihoods and would thus disincentivise or even actively prohibit careers in the arts. It also raises the issue of peer-to-peer sharing, which it suggests the Greens think should be free where profit is not a motive.
If this article were accurate it would be very alarming. Obviously, commitments of the sort decried here would cause massive problems for the creative industries. So first of all (and before I deal with the fact that these aren't commitments at all), some thoughts on the issues raised.
If everything else were left as it is, just fourteen years of copyright protection would seriously jeopardise the ability of many writers and artists to make a living. That point roughly fifteen years in, where early-career starts to tip over into mid-career, is the point where many of us are just starting to get a foothold. I'm at round about that point myself, and for the first time can see my income sustaining more than just a few months into the future. For the many who (unlike me) rely on copyright for part of their income, this also marks a point where there's enough of a body of work behind them to be able to live off it a little more comfortably, and thus to breathe, slow down, and think more deeply about the work. This has obvious benefits for the quality, depth, engagement of the work produced.
Copyright also protects individual writers and artists from exploitation. They're usually individuals with little by way of legal support networks. An unauthorised major film adaptation, say, that makes a mockery of the work, could seriously damage both its future prospects and the creator's artistic credibility.
Copyright protection benefits artists, and that benefits audiences. If individual artists choose to release elements of their work on creative commons -type licenses, then I applaud them for doing so. It's possible for them to do so because they have that right.
Peer-to-peer sharing is a more nuanced issue.
It's worth noting, first of all, that this same question was raised, in exactly the same form, about public libraries when they were first proposed. Likewise we heard that televised sport would stop people from going to games and that videos would kill cinema. Philip Pullman is a major opponent of (what he imagines are) Green policies on these issues. He's also a brilliant advocate of libraries. I invite him to consider the contradiction in these positions. Availability is not the problem.
But, by contrast with the present copyright laws, which blunder along fine, this is a more urgent issue. The current legislation is not even close to dealing with it adequately. To summarise crudely, at present P2P sharing is almost always illegal, although almost never prosecuted.
The sharing of, for example, literature via online platforms could of course seriously damage an author's income. There is certainly a case for vastly reducing the prices of online versions of literary works - it's absurd that they cost virtually the same as the printed copy, with none of the associated production or distribution costs. And there'd have to be a limit to p2p sharing. When you buy a copy of Microsoft Office for Mac, you're allowed to install it on five different computers. When you buy a book, you're allowed to lend it to your mates. The complexities of what this means in the digital world are far from having been worked out, but the current position of a blanket ban on sharing is clearly daft, bearing as it does no relation to how we actually behave in the real world. Not for the first time, an advance in technology that ought to lead to greater freedom in fact leads to greater corporate control and profit.
Here are some stupid ideas that might get us closer to how sharing really happens. Maybe someone should write some software that allows unlimited sharing, but only one person can have it at a time. It could come with an inbuilt reversion to its original purchaser - and you'd never again have to wonder to whom you lent that book you loved and lost.
Total legalisation of all sharing, though, could mean that an author never gets a penny from the work they've written. They wouldn't be able to earn a living from their work. This is clearly a bad thing.
Fortunately, this article and most of the others written on the subject misunderstand the Green position totally. For a start, the fourteen years thing isn't a manifesto commitment. It's a policy proposal (if that). They've made it very clear that before making any actual commitments on the issue, they'd want to consult widely. That's also true of the P2P sharing business. So to suggest that no-one should vote Green on the basis of these commitments is daft, because they aren't commitments.
Part of the problem arises from a lack of understanding of how the Green party formulates its manifestos. Policy is proposed by conference, then scrutinised and developed for election manifestos through a whole process of consultation and costing. So this document - that's got everyone so excited - is the beginning of the policy-making process, not the end.
This particular "policy", then, was proposed at conference in 2011 as part of a whole raft of stuff about intellectual property. It's mostly aimed at preventing huge corporations (from big pharma to Disney) from sitting on everything from Mickey Mouse to cancer treatments, long after the creator's death. It's not aimed at individual writers and artists, which is part of why the language is so soft.
More to the point, for individual writers and artists, the fourteen years figure has been clarified by both Caroline Lucas and Tom Chance (their former spokesman on the issue - his piece is especially worth reading). The proposal refers to fourteen years *after death*, not after publication. (I can dig out links for these clarifications if you like.) That's certainly far from clear in the document, but that lack of clarity is one of many reasons this isn't anywhere near making it into a manifesto.
There may be plenty of good reasons not to vote Green, but this isn't one of them.
I certainly think that Green arts policy needs a lot of work. Although it's shot through with good will, it's often hopelessly unclear - hence this totally avoidable palaver. But their policies - the ones that are actually in the manifesto, I mean - are still a good deal better than everyone else's. The idea that they're anti-creative industries is just daft. For example, they're the only party pledged to *increasing* arts funding - by £500m a year - in a fully costed manifesto.
The intentions behind their policy position as a whole also deserve further attention. As I see it, the whole drift is towards weakening the link between art and commerce. The arts, as far as possible, should be decoupled from the market. This is music to my ears. The drift is towards making art something that's easily accessible and publicly available.
This general intention is surely a good thing. If I could make my work free of commercial imperatives, if it could be made widely available to audiences, if my work did not need to be so driven by the demands of the market, then that would, for me, be wonderful. Not all, but a good many of my peers and colleagues agree, often vocally. This sort of radical decoupling of art and market goes a long way beyond the current policy discussion; I've barely hinted at what might be possible. But it is an indication of what might lay over the horizon if this is the direction of travel.
It's very, very difficult to formulate coherent policy that achieves this while not damaging the ability of individual authors to both make a living and have creative ownership of their ideas. The Greens are nowhere near managing it and this messy, controversial, confusingly-worded, easily misinterpreted not-an-actual-policy is a vivid demonstration of that failure. Unlike the rest of the parties, they are at least trying. For everyone else, arts policy is nothing beyond the contribution we make to GDP.
When the Greens do manage to square this circle, maybe then a policy will make it into the manifesto. Let's have this conversation again then.
I hope the evolving Green policies on IP are only a small part of their approach to making the arts less market-led. Much more importantly, I hope it doesn't stop at the arts. Take pharmaceutical research. At the moment, pharmaceutical companies develop products because they can expect to make money from production, or at least from the intellectual property. This has a major distorting effect on what drugs get developed. Rather than being driven by need, it is driven by profitability.
This is one reason we're nowhere close to developing a cure for malaria. It affects predominantly poor countries, where potential profits are low. Meanwhile, there are dozens of new diet pills in development for middle class white people. (To be strictly fair to big pharma, there are some other very salient reasons why malaria is an almost intractably complex problem.)
This problem could kill us all. At some point in the next ten or fifteen years, maybe a little more, we're going to arrive in a world where some big nasty bugs are totally resistant to the strongest antibiotics we've got. Those hospital superbugs are going to get out into the world and start eating everyone's flesh. If this sounds like a horror movie scenario, it should. But this is really happening. And at present there are *no* attempts to develop new antibiotics. Bearing in mind that it often takes upwards of fifteen years to develop a new drug, we are losing this race very badly. We may, in your lifetime, be back in a world where people die because they scratched themselves on a rose, or because they grazed their knee in the park. Routine operations will once again become incredibly hazardous. We may presently be living in a seventy-year blip period, a peak of life expectancy and health, rather than the usually-imagined gradual upward curve.
And don't get me started on oil companies.
But the main thing that puzzles me about this whole hoo-hah, even if none of the above were the case, is the idea that anyone could compare Labour and Green policies on - just to pick a few - austerity, the NHS, health, the environment and immigration; then having done so, could decide that *copyright* is what really matters to them. Anyone who really cares that deeply about intellectual property above all else should just vote Tory. Their friends in big business ensure that they have extremely strong policies on the matter.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will