In this piece, Neil Turkewitz offers a different take on the recent Taylor Swift rights ownership incident, arguing against viewing it as an indictment of copyright, and rather as a reminder that the rules protecting creators' intellectual property need to be easier to enforce.
Op-ed by Neil Turkewitz from Medium
There is an emerging narrative being crafted by copyright skeptics that the recent Taylor Swift incident related to the ownership of the master rights to her early recordings, like Prince before her, is somehow an indictment of copyright. This ignores all evidence to the contrary and seeks to erase Swift’s and Prince’s vigorous engagement to ensure modern and effective copyright protection to safeguard the integrity of the choices made by artists about how their works may be used. In addition, while I have great sympathy for Taylor Swift and love the idea of artists owning their own masters, to view her only as a victim of the copyright system and not simultaneously as a beneficiary is truly bizarre. But copyright cynics are willing to cast all reason and context aside in their mission — supported by Silicon Valley giants, to establish the proposition that creators’ rights and copyright are unrelated or worse yet, opposing forces. As I try to remind everyone — seemingly constantly if you want to protect creators — as I do, provide rights that are robust and easy to enforce. That don’t require an army to enforce. Expand meaningful consent — don’t shrink it and pretend that’s a form of liberation.
Swift’s story is an indictment of sorts — an indictment of a system marked by negotiating asymmetries. Asymmetries between artists and labels, and between the creative community and internet platforms. We can address both of these simultaneously by creating a normative framework that allows artists to meaningfully protect their interests against any downstream user. Unauthorized uses exploited and monetized by internet platforms have largely eliminated the potential of disintermediation to empower artists, and have instead largely resulted in their further enfeeblement and precarity. We can change that by establishing greater accountability in the internet ecosystem — ending a system in which platforms are rewarded for willful blindness.
If we can achieve that level of accountability, we eliminate the necessity of maintaining a standing army to protect artists’ rights. In that framework, we would expand the choices available to artists to determine the contours of their careers. Signing with a label would be an exercise in free will and self-determination, not an obligatory act in order to play the game. Digital technologies can empower artists that want to bypass traditional routes to market. But to operate as such, platforms must operate within the terms set by individual creators. If you want to empower artists, then give them an asset that has more value. The problems faced by individual creators are not unrelated to the fact that the individual property interest has little value in the marketplace. It is a largely unenforceable property interest. Our goal should be to give individuals the means to protect that interest. Think Taylor Swift should own her masters? Then create a system where that’s a viable choice even at the outset of one’s career.
At some point, one would hope that the fact that copyright may sometimes serve the interests of corporations will stop obscuring the fact that copyright at its core is about the right of the individual to determine the uses of her work — the right to say yes or no to the most powerful interests in the world. Effective copyright protection serves the interests of all creators — from those that want to negotiate a deal with a corporate entity that will pay for, publish, produce, and distribute that work to the market, to DIY artists that want artistic and financial control, to those artists that want to give away their works, to anyone in between.
At a critical philosophical level, copyright is a recognition of the importance of consent in a world rushing towards models of efficient monetization that would erode the ability of the individual to make decisions for herself. It rewards the singular by standing in the way of a dehumanizing Singularity. If we can create an environment in which it doesn’t take an army to enforce it, copyright expands the choices available to creators about how to determine the contours of their careers.