On Empowering Artists

FILE - In this April 12, 2006 file photo, Chinese poke their heads through a Google logo shortly after Google debuts its Chin
FILE - In this April 12, 2006 file photo, Chinese poke their heads through a Google logo shortly after Google debuts its Chinese Language brand name in the Beijing Hotel in Beijing, China. The Chinese Writers' Association said Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010 that Google Inc. has apologized for its "poor communication" with Chinese authors about scanning their books into its online library, leading to a copyright dispute. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel, File)

With last weekend's Oscars, the annual ritual of red carpets, statuettes and acceptance speeches has come to an end. Awards Season is a celebration of the accomplishments of the individual members of organizations such as The Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA, the Directors Guild, the Recording Academy and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The glitter and glamour of the Oscars celebration, however, is far removed from the less familiar reality of most artists, creators and innovators in the U.S.

Two reports issued this month shine a spotlight on the degree to which creative work is exploited without creators' permission. The USC Annenberg Innovation Lab released the second installment to its Advertising Transparency Report, showing that major online ad networks are still servicing pirate websites devoted almost entirely to infringing music and movies. The report also reveals that ads for major brands appear on such sites regularly. If you want to send the CEO's of those brands a message that their financial support of these criminal enterprises is unacceptable, you can do so on the Copyright Alliance website.

Although according to the Annenberg report, several ad networks, including Google's, show signs of reducing the number of ads placed on pirate sites after being identified in the initial report last month, a separate report released last week indicates that Google places those same sites at the top of its search rankings six months after the company announced that the worst infringing sites would be demoted to lower rankings. Even sites which Google acknowledges have been the subject of more than 100,000 infringement notices remain at the top of returned results, a problem exacerbated by the search engine's autofill function.

It is not surprising that the companies (and their surrogates), whose business model largely consists of monetizing the stolen intellectual property of creators, are also proselytizing the virtues of "reforming" copyright. And of course it would be just these websites, ad networks, and search engines that would profit most from the types of "reforms" they suggest.

So as Awards Season now draws to a close, take a moment to consider why protection for creative works matters.

A copyright belongs to the artist from the time a work is created and recorded in some form, regardless of whether she has registered it or taken any formal action. Copyright empowers the artist. It may be the only asset the artist has in a negotiation with an online distributor or a traditional media company. It opens the door for a business deal. If you weaken copyright, you undercut the creator's initial bargaining position, diminish the incentives for innovation and threaten the viability of large segments of the creative class.

Copyright also ensures the creator's freedom of choice is protected. It enables her to choose how she shares her work. She can use a work in multiple ways simultaneously. She can license the use of the work commercially to support herself and new projects, while at the same time making the work available for free to a cause she believes in. She can also choose not to license her work for uses she doesn't agree with. Limiting the creator's freedom to choose how and when to share her work, would enslave her creatively.

Finally, copyright is about freedom. It is core to protecting freedom of expression. But it also gives authors the freedom to thrive. Copyright is a unique form of property because, unlike inherited wealth, it springs from an artist's own imagination, hard work and talent. Under the right conditions a creator can use its protections to launch a career or build a business, regardless of the economic circumstances she came from. That fact should entitle copyright to more protection than other forms of property, not less.

The need for strong copyright protections might not be the first subject that you consider enjoying the glitz and glamour of awards shows. But the reality is that most of the thousands of creative individuals we represent at the Copyright Alliance will never be asked "who are you wearing" on a red carpet. Yet protection for their creative work is a very real concern for them. If you care about creative culture in your community, empower artists, respect their property and freedom of choice, and don't allow parasitic businesses to exploit them.