Real Culture is Bought Culture

I should be writing my thesis at this moment, however a small jaunt over to the Open Rights Group blog left me with a small thought (just a small one mind) about the perhaps less obvious disruptions that digital media have caused. One of the commenters on the most recent post stated…

You ORG people are pathetic. I’d like to see your point of view if it was you who produced a film or wrote a book in the course of your work (your way of life, how you get paid), and little slimy leeches like the operators of the Pirate Bay/Oink/etc made a crapload of money in ad revenue/subscription fees for enabling the piracy of your work, giving you nothing in return. The majority of your spotty live-in- parents-basement members should get out more, get a girlfriend, just get out and please join the real world where people need to get paid for their work. I hope you’re not ever actually taken seriously at the government level, your counter-arguments are too poor to be taken seriously.

As you’d expect from a blog comments section this elicited a fair amount of responses, many (though inevitably not all) of which I’m happy to say were much more polite and much less aggressive than the above. Now this may be a case where one should pull out the ‘Don’t Feed the Trolls’ sign, however it does illustrate a larger issue.

The countless discussions that we have about copyright these days always seem to be chipping away at an assumption of what creative work is that we have had for a long time. If you wanted to bring in some classic critical theory and invoke Adorno and Horkheimer’s writings on mass culture (which I do because I’m a geeky obsessive), you would hark back to their considerations of how mass culture has impacted our understanding of what the value of culture is. When they were criticising the idea that culture could be commodified and sold as a product they were also concerned that only culture which was commodified would be classified as ‘real’ culture, with the rest being confined to the derogatory category of ‘amateur’, creativity without profit. What seemed to define real culture from amateur culture was the involvement of some economic value. Therefore only people that make money from their cultural production are ‘real’ artists and culture is best judged on its economic merits. Now this of course is a gross simplification; as anyone that has a passion for any sphere of culture will rabidly argue, just because something sells a lot doesn’t mean it’s any good. However this conflation of economic value with cultural value seems to have stuck in areas.

For example last year when Lily Allen made her little snafu and pissed off the entire internet (hyperbole noted), I recall she stated that she would prefer people go out and buy bootleg copies of her albums from street vendors than pirate it online, because at least that way it had some value. To Lily it seemed her music was worthless unless someone was willing to pay her for it. Likewise from the comments much was made about the commenter’s assumption that ‘ORG People’ could not be creative people because they did not support copyright (In fact as Jim Killock corrected them, ORG do support copyright but not the infringement of our human rights in the name of its protection). Many others replied that in fact many creative people, both ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ were members of ORG and that it was a rather simplified perception of the organisation. One commenter especially, Prof. Andres Guadamuz of The University of Edinburgh, highlighted the issue very well saying…

There is this remarkably short-sighted idea that only those who profit from copyright industries have the right to make any arguments… the vast majority of people are engaged in creative processes, be it taking photographs, writing poems, writing a blog, etc. Only because some people are lucky enough to get rewarded for their creations does not de-legitimise everyone else.

This I think is the crux of the copyright debates along with the progression made in ‘amateurism’ and creativity. That people outside of the established cultural industries are able to produce and distribute work of comparable quality has brought the debates about copyright out of a corporatised context and down to an individual level. Where copyright was once the domain of the industry and viewed in a purely economic context, now it has seeped into the domain of the individual, and its more restrictive elements are visible. People that produce creative work without an economic focus are joining the debate. Again this is not to say it should be abolished, as much of copyright law is about protecting the consumer as well as the producer, it just needs updating for this de-corporatised context. As for the original commenter, they should not be dismissed as just ignorant, but should be engaged with. Not only is the view espoused real, but it is also deeply rooted from decades of commodified creativity. If we are going to reach an equilibrium between industrial and ‘amateur’ creativity, it will need to be addressed.

Then again, maybe I just fed the troll….

2 thoughts on “Real Culture is Bought Culture

  1. Thanks for this complex take on a complex issue. I think you’re right: the fact that individuals can make awesome quality stuff outside of a corporate context changes everything, and those changes need to be addressed with kindness, a willingness to listen, and a dedication to not clamping down by giving all the power in the world to copyright holders. Yeah!

  2. Thanks for the comment (always love getting feedback). I agree that these issues need to be considered as you said, with a kindness. We should be careful ourselves to ensure that we argue for balance that all parties find agreeable rather than reacting defensively with anti-industry hyperbole. Otherwise we’ll simply become the caricatures that we are often portrayed as, be it ‘Freetards’ or ‘Greedy selfish pirates’.

    Also, don’t feed the trolls.🙂

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