What Creative Artists Should Know About the Future of Intellectual Property — And Why It Matters

An Interview with author Aram Sinnreich on his book "The Essential Guide to Intellectual Property"

by Erica Diya Basu

CMSI faculty fellow, Aram Sinnreich’s website describes him as a “media professor, author, and musician.” In his most recently published book, The Essential Guide to Intellectual Property, he provides a timely analysis of how copyrights, patents, and trademarks have political, economic, and cultural implications.

The Yale University Press website describes the book as, “A broad introduction to the changing roles of intellectual property within society. Intellectual property is one of the most confusing—and widely used—dimensions of the law. By granting exclusive rights to publish, manufacture, copy, or distribute information and technology, IP laws shape our cultures, our industries, and our politics in countless ways, with consequences for everyone, including artists, inventors, entrepreneurs, and citizens at large. In this engaging, accessible study, Aram Sinnreich uncovers what’s behind current debates and what the future holds for copyrights, patents, and trademarks.”

In this context, Aram provides some key takeaways from his latest book.

1. As a musician and an IPR scholar, how do you see the recent developments for stronger IP regulation impacting the creative freedom of artists to build on existing cultural artifacts?
The short answer is it has a tremendous chilling effect. What’s not commonly understood about copyright is that, by definition, the stronger it gets, the weaker free expression gets. In the music industry, for instance, rulings like the decision in the Blurred Lines case, don’t merely cause songwriters to think twice before writing a new tune, they also make digital intermediaries, publishers, and record labels more risk-averse, limiting opportunities for songwriters.

2. What is “fair use” and why is it important?
Fair use is the principle, enshrined in copyright law, that certain uses of copyrighted content should not be prohibited by rights holders. Good examples are parody and “transformative” works like collage. It’s important because the requirement of asking permission and/or paying to creatively reinterpret cultural artifacts measurably limits and constrains new expression by creators. I know this empirically, based on survey and other research I’ve conducted, much of it with CMSI senior research fellow, Prof. Patricia Aufderheide.

3. Do stronger IPR regulations mean greater protections for the rights of artists and their revenue earning capabilities?
They can. It’s a double-edged sword. At its best, IPR regulation incentivizes artists to share their work via the marketplace and incentivizes firms like movie studios and record labels to invest in developing work by artists and distributing it around the world. On the other hand, too much “protection” has a censorial effect, limiting artists’ access to the marketplace and limiting audiences’ access to their work. The key is finding the “sweet spot” that optimizes the one while minimally impacting the other.

4. How will emerging digital technologies of livestreaming like Netflix and Spotify impact media makers and IP regulations?
The short answer is that every new communication technology opens the doors for new art forms and business models, which both challenge existing creative economies and inspire new ones. In practice, this means that technological phase shifts like digitization spur cascading battles between a wide array of old and new stakeholders, each of whom wants to use the transformative capacity of the new technological regime to set up a new economic model that tips the scale in favor of their own needs and agendas. The long answer would require several books, some of which I’ve already written.

5. What are 3 important takeaways for artists from your new book, The Essential Guide to Intellectual Property?
First — more “protection” isn’t necessarily better for artists. There is just as much economic and creative threat in overprotection as in underprotection.

Second — nearly all creative industries are incredibly inefficient, with only about 3 percent of the revenues generated by creative work ending up in the pockets of creators. Before blaming newcomers like digital intermediaries for your economic woes, consider how well — or how poorly — the legacy industries have served the purpose of supporting artists and their work.

Third — There’s a lot of mythology and misinformation about IP and the role it plays in your craft and your industry. Don’t assume that agents, managers, lawyers, labels, publishers, or studios will look after your best interests. Educate yourself and make your own decisions about how you want to participate in the creative industries based on your best understanding of how the law can and should be used.

Sinnreich, Aram. The Essential Guide to Intellectual Property. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019.


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