If you read a lot of pop culture criticism, you’ll very quickly come across three words: vital, essential and necessary. Critics, especially film and TV critics in my experience, love to describe the very best art in the same way most people describe things like food, shelter and healthcare. The instinct might be to treat this as hyperbole, but I like to take people at their word, and besides, there’s no shortage of writing out there that makes explicit what’s merely suggested in most uses of “vital”, “essential” and “necessary”. Moreover, I agree completely: art is an essential part of life.
There are as many explanations for why art is vital, essential and necessary as there are thinkpieces explaining why. Art is how we understand each other when we can’t see inside each other’s skull prisons. Art has profound social value, capable of transforming how people see the world by forcing them to confront unfamiliar realities or new perspectives on age-old issues. Art and the appreciation of art is what makes life meaningful at all for lots of people. I don’t disagree with any of those points of view, but they’re all a bit piecemeal for my taste, failing to provide a universal justification for why art is necessary.
I like to turn instead to Franklin Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights, in which he proposed an economic bill of rights to guarantee US citizens protection from the ravages of capitalism. The second right he enumerates is “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation”. In my experience, most people are on-board with earning enough to feed and clothe themselves, but even a lot of contemporary socialist writing passes over “recreation”. It’s not an intuitive inclusion in a list of things that everybody needs to enjoy a decent life, but, like FDR, I think once it’s articulated, it quickly becomes self-evident. Even if all the rights necessary to literally maintain biological life and good health were secured, even if we guaranteed all the rights to be free from exploitation, abuse and ill-treatment, what would it all be for if people had no leisure, no entertainment? It’s not flashy, it’s not something that lends itself to dramatic images of suffering and pain. But think about it. How on Earth could we sincerely say we’ve achieved the good life if we have no fun, no relaxation, no beauty? It goes without saying that art isn’t the only kind of recreation people enjoy – there’s also sport, for one – but most people enjoy at least some art, and most people’s lives would be worse if they couldn’t.
I’ve written before about how the critical class is dominated by liberals. It’s not something you see discussed a lot, for whatever reason, but you can almost see glimpses of self-recognition whenever a conservative film critic (usually Armond White) “ruins” a film’s Rotten Tomatoes score by giving it a negative review (even though a Rotten Tomatoes score is an aggregation of reviews, and therefore can’t be “ruined” by aggregating one) and people throw themselves into paroxysms of rage over it. As the average age of critics skews younger, due largely to the abolition of in-house critic positions at major publications and their replacement by freelancers, that liberalism is becoming increasingly left-leaning. You’d have little difficulty in securing widespread agreement with many of the economic rights espoused by FDR; fair wages, a good education, free universal healthcare, etc. Most of them would support redistributive measures – especially progressive taxation – to bring those things to the poor. And you’d have no difficulty whatsoever with finding agreement that art is vital, essential and necessary. But in years of reading both pop culture criticism and socialist political writing, I have never, ever seen contemporary advocacy for redistributive measures specifically to guarantee access to art.
That’s not to say people don’t back policies that have redistributive effects on art – public libraries, grants that allow people to pursue artistic practice, subsidies to support museums, galleries and theatres, etc. – but here we’re back to the piecemeal issue. These are things people support mostly in isolation from a larger political vision and never specifically as a way to redistribute art. They come to us by way of education initiatives, community improvement schemes or unemployment insurance. And those are all great things, but we can’t depend on secondary redistributive effects of policies not designed to redistribute art. You see a similar problem with people who propose better access to education as a solution to poverty. Everyone should absolutely have the opportunity to access a good education, but they should have that access because education is a good in itself, and not because it will have the knock-on effects of reducing poverty, especially because education is a terrible way to reduce poverty. The main effect that access to education has is to increase how educated people in poverty are – and that’s great! – but it doesn’t do much for poverty itself. Similarly, there are policies with some redistributive effects on art, but overall, access to art remains highly segregated.
To the extent this problem is ever written about, it usually concerns one of two things: art associated with the upper classes and how to make those things more affordable for working-class people (and here we’re back to museums, galleries and theatres) and funding to support artists, which I, as a poor artist who would like to access public funding in the future, obviously care about. But my concern here is actually with the underdiscussed inverse of those issues: audience access to popular art (film, television, music, books, video games, etc). I recently read a great series of digital essays on the comics industry by a critic writing under the pen name Colin Spacetwinks (available to download here, on a pay-what-you-want model) and he puts the problem as succinctly as anyone I’ve ever seen. We think of popular art as competing primarily within their own medium – movies vs movies, games vs games – or between like mediums – TV vs movies, most commonly – but actually all entertainment competes with all other entertainment for the meagre money that most people have left after paying for housing, utilities, food, etc. Colin uses this to highlight the unsustainability of current comics pricing, where someone could easily spend $30 a month to keep up with just the X-Men, due to the frequency of crossover events. That same $30 could buy you subscriptions to all three major streaming services – Netflix, Hulu and Amazon – each of which has a vast library of films and TV shows to choose from. Given this state of affairs, it’s only natural that people who otherwise might take an interest in comics – people who are already interested even – would instead choose to maximise their entertainment possibilities, which explains the year-on-year decline of comic book readership, especially since the recession ushered in a new era of depressed wages, cuts to poverty-relieving social programs and the exploitative gig economy.
No less than any other commodity, access to art is unequally distributed by income and wealth. Lots of people, myself included, were disgusted when HBO bought Sesame Street from PBS, moving a public institution created for the benefit of poor children – to give them a consistent, reliable oasis of entertainment and education – into TV’s original gated community of “prestige” programming. But while that was a particularly stark and sickening example, it’s the status quo for most art. Most television is produced by cable networks and streaming services that people have to pay for the privilege of watching and there’s basically no such thing as free access to movies, except those in the public domain. People who can afford cable or frequent cinema trips – or frequent film festival trips, even – get to see more shows and films, and see them sooner, than people with less money, and there are basically no policies on the table, and no political advocacy, to correct those inequalities. For most people, the closest thing to a solution is digital piracy, but, legal and ethical issues aside, it has its own inequalities, distributing films and TV shows at a lower visual quality than legal channels, as well as favouring the already-popular over the little-known and people who can afford high-speed broadband over those who can’t.
People have a right to recreation and currently that right, no less than other economic rights, is not being honoured. I’m not an economist and I’m definitely not a public policy writer, but I have some ideas for how we could take some steps towards a redistribution of art. Most of them are just ways to give poor people money, like a universal basic income, so they can afford more access to art, and some are economic reforms of the entertainment industry itself – such as the break-up of the studios previously outlined by Ciara – which could potentially bring down the cost of access. But my big idea, the one I feel most passionate about, would simply give most of the popular art that has ever existed to everyone for free, or as near free as possible.
Make copyrights expire sooner.
“For works published after 1977, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. However, if the work is a work for hire (that is, the work is done in the course of employment or has been specifically commissioned) or is published anonymously or under a pseudonym, the copyright lasts between 95 and 120 years, depending on the date the work is published.
All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. Works published after 1922, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years. However, even if the author died over 70 years ago, the copyright in an unpublished work lasts until December 31, 2002. And if such a work is published before December 31, 2002, the copyright will last until December 31, 2047.”
This is so normal that most people probably wouldn’t bat an eye at it, but the more you think about it, the more absurd it becomes. At the very least, once you get beyond the lifespan of the average human being, copyright doesn’t even compensate the labour or provide a return on investment for the people who made the art in the first place. But, more than that, when you look at the history of copyright, it’s clear that the current lifespan of a copyright is about private companies wringing every possible drop of profit from their assets at the expense of the public. The first federal copyright law passed in the United States, the Copyright Act of 1790, only guaranteed copyright for fourteen years, with the opportunity to apply for a fourteen-year extension provided the author was still alive. It was succeeded by the Copyright Act of 1831, which doubled the initial term to twenty-eight, maintaining the fourteen-year extension. The Copyright Act of 1909 kept the same initial term and doubled the extension period to twenty-eight as well. It was amended in 1912 to extend copyright protections to a new form of published work: the motion picture.
Mickey Mouse was copyrighted in 1928.
Mickey Mouse was supposed to enter the public domain in 1984. Luckily for Disney, the US signed on to the Universal Copyright Convention, which resulted in the Copyright Act of 1976 and the “author’s life plus X years” formulation into US law, with fifty years as the initial figure. But for work made for hire – i.e. works “authored” by corporations, like movies – a single term of seventy-five years was set. That would have put Mickey into the public domain in 2003, but if there’s one thing you can rely on Disney to do, it’s ruthlessly maximise profit at the expense of basic decency, whether they’re suing creches for murals or contracting toy production in sweatshops. Disney “opened an office and hired lobbyists in Washington in 1990” to make sure they could shape new copyright legislation then being considered in Congress. Among its efforts to buy influence, Disney became “one of the top media conglomerates contributing to political campaigns”, including to “Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., a family friend of Eisner and ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Arts and Intellectual Property, which oversees copyright issues.” To no great shock, the 1998 Copyright Extension Act was basically written by Disney, tacking on another 20 years.
Mickey Mouse – or, at least, the original Steamboat Willie iteration of the character – is supposed to enter the public domain in five years. It is, by all accounts, unlikely that Disney will pursue another extension, largely because of all the ways the Internet has made copyright law more of a hot-button issue (not least of all the seemingly neverending YouTube Copyright Wars). Previous extensions were able to pass in large part thanks to the inaction of a public who didn’t know or care much about something as technical and wonky as copyright. Just a few years ago, two proposed anti-piracy laws, SOPA and PIPA, were kicked to death when widespread public outcry resulted in some of the biggest websites in the world – including Wikipedia and Reddit – shutting down in protest. We have, thankfully, probably reached the peak of copyright creep, but when you look back at where we started – with a maximum of twenty-eight years, and only if the author was still alive at the end of the first fourteen, it’s crazy to think that art created today probably won’t enter the public domain until the 2100s, as long as the atmosphere is still breathable.
James Boyle, a law professor at Duke University, put it well: “We are the first generation to deny our own culture to ourselves. No work created during your lifetime will, without conscious action by its creator, become available for you to build upon.” Works of art aren’t just the product of their creator, but the cultural patrimony of all humanity. They are the stuff of our culture, no less and maybe more than classic literature, myths and legends, and traditional folk songs, all things we expect to be freely shared among us, to be recalled and reenjoyed in communion with each other, and passed as our cultural heritage from generation to generation. Why should people have to compensate giant media conglomerates for the privilege of sharing classic movies like The Sound of Music or The Princess Bride with their children and grandchildren the way they share A Christmas Carol or Jane Eyre? There is no good reason for it, and that’s why I don’t think it’s enough to just be relieved Disney probably won’t try to extend copyright again. We need to roll it back. How dare private companies just hoard all the world’s art for decades upon decades – for easily over a hundred years in most cases – and charge the public whatever they want to access it?
People have a right and a reasonable expectation of access to entertainment, especially when its production is so often subsidised by tax breaks, i.e. governments foregoing revenue that might otherwise be available to fund public services. I understand why copyright is necessary in our capitalist economic system to recoup production costs and generate profit that can fund future productions. And it’s obviously vital (essential, necessary…) for artists to be able to gain adequate compensation for their work in the first place, since their legally-enforceable ownership of the work is the only bargaining chip they have against the vast economic power of media companies (though, it should go without saying, most artists are not adequately compensated for their work right now, especially in the music industry, and I support a variety of economic reforms to change that). This isn’t an anti-copyright proposal. But, at a certain point, the current copyright regime is just giant media conglomerates sitting on a resource that rightly belongs to the public and demanding whatever toll they please for access.
And that’s if they’re making it accessible at all. Probably the most infuriating, pointless thing that companies do with their copyrights is nothing at all. There are a shocking number of films and TV shows that have never received any kind of home media release – on physical media or streaming – and are basically just lying around in a warehouse somewhere, gathering dust. Many of these releases are held back by the cost of music rights – John G. Avildsen’s Slow Dancing in the Big City, his polarising follow-up to Rocky, or the acclaimed, near-forgotten 80s series Frank’s Place – another way copyright screws us out of access to art. It’s galling to think of art locked away from the public while companies wealthier than countries haggle over pennies on the dollar.
Making copyright expire sooner would immediately move most of this art – and not just movies and TV shows, but music, books, video games and the rest – into the public domain, cutting distribution costs down to just the expense of the physical medium and its transport, or the digital storage costs, instead of lining the already bulging pockets of media conglomerates. I’ll leave it to people with the right expertise to work out the best time limit (though “fifteen years” puts a smile on my face), but whatever we conclude, it has to be much, much shorter than the intolerable status quo.
People have a right to recreation, even or especially the poor. We can secure that right in part by making sure that working people are paid fair wages and have time free from work for art and entertainment, and that those who can’t work are supported by generous welfare benefits. But we can also make sure their money goes as far as possible by moving the vast bulk of popular art into the public domain.