Stuff the Suits

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We’ve all heard the justifications for the emerging property police state — the copyright term extensions, the international jihad on infringers, the government mandating of anti-copying technology and the rest. It’s to protect the “creative process,”, the inspired artist laboring away in a basement or garage.

To listen to the whining from the film and recording industries, it is a wonder that a Charlie Chaplin ever bothered to pick up a camera, or Frank Sinatra to croon a song, seeing that the term of copyright was much shorter in their days than it is now.

Once in a while the truth slips out, which it did recently in GW Magazine, which is published by George Washington University in D.C. The magazine (Spring/Summer 2005) did a profile of Dan Glickman, the former Congressman and Agriculture Secretary and a G.W. alum, who has succeeded Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America. The piece quotes Glickman on the industry’s crackdown on copying. “The average movie today costs $103 million to make,” he says, “and six out of 10 of them don’t make that money back. Making movies has become incredibly expensive — and that’s why preventing piracy has become so crucial.”

It’s not about a creative process but rather a non-creative one, with bloated budgets and overpaid and often under-talented stars. The push in other words comes from the business side of the house — the side that often pulverizes the very talent the lobbyists in Washington are claiming to nurture.

Joni Mitchell, the singer and poet who practically created her own genre back in the ’60s, made this point in a discussion with Camille Paglia in the August Interview magazine. At one point, Paglia observes that the quest for big recording contracts has short-circuited the development of authentic artistry. To this Mitchell replies, “I heard a recording executive say on the radio that they were no longer looking for talent but rather for a look and a willingness to cooperate, because with Pro Tools they can fix anything.”

I don’t know why the name “Britney” came to mind there. Regardless, that sentence should be printed on a banner and hung in the Congressional hearing room the next time the suits from the entertainment world whine about how their copyright monopolies aren’t long enough.

Mitchell continues:

“The reason I did [have time to develop] is because the record company didn’t value me at all. This was to my advantage. They got me dirt cheap — they didn’t know how to market me. I looked like a folk musician because I’d been playing in clubs for several years, which I really enjoyed. You could jump down off that stage, and you were still one of the people — they didn’t gasp at the mention of your name. It was comfortable, and you could experiment. Warner Reprise had no money invested in me and therefore left me alone — not out of kindness but out of disinterest.”

To encourage creativity, get rid of the suits.

If the goal really is to nurture the creative process in America, we would protect local clubs and venues from the developers and gentrifiers. We’d bust the broadcast monoliths and return the public airwaves to independent and community stations that provide outlets for new voices. We’d put music and arts back in the schools, and demand that politicians suck it up and raise the tax dollars to accomplish that. As Lewis Hyde has urged, we would establish a small copyright fee to provide funding for the arts.

The last thing we would do is continue to bestow monopoly protections upon the entertainment conglomerates that prowl Washington in creativity’s name. But that’s the one thing Congress does. Like attracts like, I guess.

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