Monday, February 6, 2012

The Creators Conference (part 1) -- Authors try to reclaim a lost narrative


By Emmanuel Legrand

What can you expect when you pack a room with authors? Well, very soon they start talking about “narrative”. It must come with the job.

The only problem, this time, is that they have “lost the narrative”. Which one? The one related to their rights in the digital world.

Victor Hugo may have written in the 19th Century that authors’ rights were the engine of free speech, the message apparently has been lost in translation when it got to the new generation of internet users. They believe – rightly or wrongly – that copyright is a hindrance to free speech. They assume that copyright is the preserve of the rich and the conservative “old economy”. They build a case by linking any legislation to protect rights owners or even any willingness to regulate the internet as an attack on their basic freedom of speech.

Such vision hurts authors, because they view copyright, or authors’ rights (to use the Continental European term), as not only recognition of their art but also as their means of living. It hurts them financially, of course, since the value of creative works is reduced to zero, preventing them from what they believe are well-deserved earnings. But it also hurts them to be seen as among the bad guys from the creative industries that are vilified by the digital crowd. Such attitude is underserved, they believe, since they are at the bottom end of the food chain and the vast majority have problems making both ends meet.

So what happened? Where did it do wrong and how can the tide be reversed? Or can it? These questions were top of the agenda at the Creators Conference, held on February 3 at the splendid Théâtre du Vaudeville in Brussels. Organisers ECSA, the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance, got together authors, composers, lobbying groups, policy-makers and media in an attempt to “give a voice to creators”, according to Swedish composer Alfons Karabuda, chairman of ECSA.

American writer Robert Levine, author of the book ‘Free Ride’ (Doubleday), summed up the perception of the creative industries by the internet crowd as “backward greedy company trying to hold back change from the people, and the people cannot be wrong”.

Levine reminded the audience that the first author’s society in the US, Ascap, was created in 1919 by a bunch of musicians who asked to be paid for music that was used in public, and they were told that they should be happy because that was promotion for them and that businesses would close if they had to pay for music. “Very little has changed,” noted Levine. “Artists were called greedy, and were told they were against technology.”

Robert Levine
In the digital era, he added, what we are witnessing is a war between the creative industries and internet companies. He joked that the friction between the two was “the first class war between billionaires and millionaires”, between “one group of financial interest vs. another group of financial interests.” And in between are the creators, a class of their own.

But on a grassroots level, he added, the divide was now between creative companies vs. people’s rights. Nothing better exemplified this divide than the recent battle in the US against the SOPA and PIPA proposed legislation. “SOPA turned into a battle for the right to free internet,” said Levine. “It was not a good law but even more flooded than the law was the conversation [about the law]. There are right on both sides. We don’t want to infringe on right to free speech. And everyone should have the right to publish a book but I don’t think everyone should have the right to publish my book.”

Levine’s keynote speech triggered a very healthy discussion among creators and policy-makers about the situation of creators vs. internet giants during the panel ‘Freedom of Choice’ in which moderator Patrick Rackow, chief executive of the British Academy of Composers, Songwriters and Authors asked if freedom of choice was something authors still had and if the concept of moral right was outdated.

Rick Carnes, chair of the Songwriters Guild of America, picked up on Levine’s point about rights. “If they use my songs without authorisation on the internet, I have a right [to ask internet services to take down the song] but no remedy [if they don’t], and a right without a remedy is not a right,” he said.

“We lost the narrative,” he quipped. Carnes urged his fellow creators to fight back and not being afraid to take a stand. He invited creators to use the term author’s rights to define their rights rather than copyright. And for Carnes, creators should be able to move hearts and minds because that’s what they do (“We are great story-tellers”), but somehow they have not been able to convey their message – and the validity of their message – to the general public. “We have our own platforms: films and music. I do not understand how we cannot get our message out,” he said.

But he added that even if they had the narrative right, it was not obvious to reach out to the public since the platforms were controlled by the internet giants such as Google, which he described as “an entity that has become too large”. Besides, added Swedish songwriter and journalist Helienne Lindvall, Google has that view that US law applies everywhere.

Levine jumped in to point out the interesting paradox that tech companies talk about content monopolies, when all the studios or labels taken together have less of a market share than Google has in its own business.

Helga Truepel
Two European policy-makers added their pinch of salt to the conversation. German Member of the European Parliament Helga Truepel noted that there has been a shift “from old monopolies to new monopolies and they are all American”.  She added that it was necessary to counter pirates “that have the narrative of freedom on their side”, and who see any attempt to regulate the internet as censorship.

For Truepel, the narrative has “to make clear to people that if they want to consume cultural content, they have to pay for it. We need to find ways to remunerate in a sustainable way creativity, otherwise it’s a question of exploitation of the rights of creators.”

She added, “I do not like the argument that access to culture has to be free. It cannot be a sustainable solution.”

“Artists have to speak out,” Trupel told a room of creators who were acquiescing with her views. A theme backed by Jean Bergevin, head of the European Commission’s unit 'Fight against Counterfeiting and Piracy' at the DG Internal Market and Services: “You guys are unheard: you have to go out. You have a very valid story to tell.”

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