Notes Antic Disposition

Respecting Creativity?

Starters & Strategies is a magazine that for many years, has gone out to thousands of school teachers around New Zealand. I happened to find a copy of the recent issue (Term 2, 2009) where I came across the ‘Respecting Creativity’ competition.

‘Respecting Creativity’ encourages teachers to introduce the concept of intellectual property and the debate surrounding copyright issues to a classroom discussion for students in years 8 to 13, with an associated poster design project. Here’s an excerpt from their suggested lesson plan:

Who Owns What Is Created?

— Is it possible to own an idea or must it be something you can feel and touch?

— Is it possible to steal an idea or a creation (intellectual property) in the same way as tangible property? Give examples of what could be stolen and how?

— Is it possible to own intellectual property or creative ideas? What do we know about copyright? How does it work? Learn about copyright by visiting the following websites: lovemusic.co.nz, nzfact.co.nz, copyright.org.nz, iponz.govt.nz.

— How is respecting copyright the same as respecting creativity? How does this encourage creativity?

If students proceed step by step through these questions as the teaching guide suggests, they are led to the conclusion that there is a single coherent argument that is ‘factual’ and ‘correct’ in this situation. Unfortunately it isn’t quite that simple.

I get incredibly frustrated when I see the school system smothering students with such pseudo-rationality, faking fair debate by paying lip service to an opposing argument, while all the while setting up the orthodox opinion as the only right answer.

In actual fact, the entire body of orthodoxy relating to intellectual property is disputed in many different ways by many different organizations, and it is shallow spoon-feeding to encourage discussion without researching the history of copyright law and why it exists, let alone ignoring popular alternatives to copyright, and the influence of these alternatives on the possibilities for creative work.

The breakdown of the argument that illegal downloads harm creativity is emphasized by research which questions the so-called ‘fact’ that piracy stifles content creation. There is also evidence that people who download music illegally actually spend more money on music. While hotly disputed, this does call into question the ethics of punishment in infringement cases where many people are starting to wonder: Are downloads really killing the music industry? Or is it something else?.

It may not be immediately clear to students that the ideals being promoted by lovemusic.co.nz are representative of music industry lobby groups and corporate interests who are sponsoring these competitions in order to have their agenda brought into the classroom in a ‘friendly’ and easily digestible format.

Independent thought is not an option being encouraged by lovemusic.co.nz because they only link to websites that tell one side of the story. To me, it is utterly unacceptable that students are being encouraged to plainly regurgitate corporate opinion to gain NCEA credits when they could be learning to think critically for themselves. To be fair to everyone who is affected and influenced by this issue, it is important to consult sources that have opposing viewpoints, and try to understand who is arguing what.

As an alternative to the activities promoted by lovemusic.co.nz, I have compiled a wider series of questions for a class activity. I believe the motivational discussion presented here is a fairly accurate reflection of the views of many artists and creatives today (those who ad agencies like to refer to as ‘digital natives’). Some of these questions may involve research and fact-checking, while others can be raised as a matter of opinion and debate. This will probably make a lot more sense, with reference to the original item in Starters & Strategies.

Starting the Students Thinking

  • Introduce the concept of ‘Respecting Creativity’ as a worldwide controversy where various lobby groups and consumers are arguing against one other. Who are the different sides? What are they arguing about?
  • What are the different ways that artists and creative people earn money? How do artists and creative people rely on any other companies or organizations to help them earn this money? What services do these organizations provide and how do they work?
  • What is the difference between ownership and authorship? What are the different ways that someone can own the rights to music, film, or other creative works? Who should be allowed to own the rights?

The Intellectual Property Debate

  • What is copyright, and how does it work? Who is Thomas Jefferson, and why did he describe copyright as a ‘necessary evil’? How long does copyright last for and what happens when it expires?
  • Are there alternatives to copyright law for claiming intellectual property rights over a piece of work? What is Creative Commons, and how does a Creative Commons license differ from a traditional copyright license? What is the difference between ‘All Rights Reserved’ (copyright) and ‘Some Rights Reserved’ (copyleft)? Are there any reasons why an artist or creative person would want to allow other people to copy, distribute and remix their work?
  • How long has the entertainment industry existed for? What different formats has music and cinema been distributed on, since the invention of the moving picture and the phonograph? What effect has the rise of the internet had on the entertainment industry? How has the internet changed the way that artists and creative people publish and distribute their work?
  • What does ‘independent’ mean in the context of the music and film industry? What makes an independent record or film different from a so-called ‘major’ or ‘mainstream’ release?
  • Why is copyright infringement wrong? How does it harm creative people? What are the different opinions people might have regarding the enforcement of intellectual property rights? What does the law say?
  • If unauthorized copying of digital files is stealing, should it be punished in the same way as shoplifting or petty theft? Should the penalties be more or less harsh for this illegal copying than for petty theft? Did the woman who was recently fined $1.9 million for illegal downloading receive a fair punishment?
  • What does it mean for someone to own the rights to the ‘performance’ of a creative work? Is the illegal performance of a song the same as illegally downloading it? Is playing a ringtone in public an illegal performance?
  • What are the different ways that copyright and copyleft encourage creativity? Are there any ways in which copyright or copyleft might be harmful to creativity? Are they fundamentally opposed to one another, or can they both co-exist? What kinds of creative projects might be best suited to each?

Current Events & History

  • Can the students think of any bands and artists who are pro-copyright enforcement, and have taken legal action against illegal downloading? (Example: Metallica)
  • Can the students think of any bands and artists who have experimented with releasing their music for free or under different payment and licensing models? (Example: Radiohead)
  • There are many campaigns (including ‘Respecting Creativity’ currently promoting the idea that digital copying is destroying popular music. What relationship do these campaigns have to the history of the entertainment industry? What was the ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’ campaign in the 1980s? What are the similarities and differences between this, and the campaigns of today?
  • Why do some authors believe that “Intellectual Property” is a silly euphemism? What is the free culture movement and why are its supporters opposed to exclusive regimes of traditional copyright?
  • What is ACTA, and what involvement does New Zealand have in ACTA? Why are some New Zealand groups concerned about the implications of ACTA?
  • What is the New Zealand Copyright Ammendment Act and what relationship does it have to the issue of illegal downloads? What does guilt upon accusation mean, and why might this be a problem?
  • What is DRM? What are the arguments for and against DRM? Who is in favor of DRM and who is opposed to it?

Organizations and Public Projects

It is important that students are presented with the opportunity to think critically, rather than be fed with one-sided arguments using rhetoric that avoids looking at real-life case studies. A useful historical and commercial perspective is provided in a well known article from the early 90’s — The Problem With Music by Steve Albini. This places the ideal of ‘respecting creativity’ in a wholly different light to what is being promoted by record labels themselves and is a useful contrast to consider (keeping in mind that having recorded bands like Nirvana, P.J Harvey, and The Pixies, Albini is no mere armchair pundit).

It’s important to emphasize that the entertainment industry is not wholly evil and bad. There are a lot of majors doing positive things and backing great artists to start a career and release their work to a much larger audience. Likewise, the so-called pirates are not necessarily selfish plundering thieves — their own justification for downloading could be from an argument of fairness, that they had previously paid money for a track, only to have the CD lost or stolen, or their digital files destroyed in a computer crash. They may not have understood that they were not allowed to have full rights of ownership for what they have paid for. Continually mistreating and ripping off consumers will always lead to them being disgruntled and in some cases, taking the law into their own hands. It’s a painful and messy situation but nobody on either side will give up without a fight.

It would be better if teachers present this topic in a critical way that focuses on controversy, providing resources and links for students to understand both sides of the story. Focusing on the idea of respecting creativity is a distraction from the real question of who is trying to benefit from this creativity.

It is authoritarian and patronizing to treat students as if they are incapable of considering the dispute and forming their own value judgements.

Encouraging simplistic explanations that offer a final and correct opinion on anything is a fantastic way to continue the long-standing tradition of anti-intellectualism and mediocrity in New Zealand. Discouraging students from thinking for themselves is a great way to truly ‘Respect Creativity’! I congratulate the RIANZ and their cohorts for this fantastic example of what public relations is all about.