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Towards copyright abolition: why we should all be pirates

Revolting against the terror of intellectual property.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

If Electronic Arts is considered the supervillain of video game publishing, then Spotify is undoubtedly the music industry equivalent of an incomprehensibly evil and unstoppably powerful force that plagues a creative field. While Electronic Arts is bald-faced about its deceptive marketing strategies, disdain for worker rights and insatiable hunger for an ever-burgeoning profit margin, what is perhaps more insidious about Spotify is how it consistently tries to paint itself as the saviour of music.

Launched just last week, Spotify’s absurd Loud & Clear “transparency” scheme has all the hallmarks of delusional capitalistic optimism. “Spotify plays a leading role in [a] healthier music industry,” the Q+A section of their new website begins, “as a sort of radio station and record store… but without their limitations.” Dissatisfied with this mere self-aggrandisement, the website then goes on to assert that Spotify was the primary force that saved a music industry “ravaged by piracy,” and the creator of a “future” that is “incredibly bright for artists’ careers.” Talk about a God complex.

It’s easy enough to ridicule a supervillain brand for their thinly-veiled advertising, but Loud & Clear is indicative of, and will undoubtedly be responsible for entrenching, far broader assumptions about the value of creative work engrained in the public consciousness by capitalism: that copyright is not only necessary, but the essential element that drives creative industries to flourish. Yet, one brief look at the harsh reality of the music industry makes it undoubtedly clear that it is no different from any other: the rich get richer, and independent ventures have a next-to-zero chance of succeeding. Though this article focuses primarily on music as it exists in the modern day, the arguments for copyright abolition I will make are analogous to any industry afflicted by the terror of intellectual property.

Before trying to refute the problems at the centre of it all, it is helpful to briefly examine how Spotify became the giant that it is today. Since the dawn of record stores, the music industry has been inseparably tied to distribution frameworks that try to spread thin the profits of sold works away from the artists themselves. Only three decades ago, artists had no option but to turn to publishers and record labels, whose sole focus was advertising, production and marketing, in order to get their works in front of a larger number of interested eyes.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of record deals gone bad: internationally huge artists that earned but pennies for Platinum-certified records, or lost the master rights to their own songs out of conflict with label-heads. Since the inception of the internet, however, all creative industries underwent a fundamental transformation that the law and public understanding are still struggling to catch up to: the advent of digital publishing.

What makes data special? Unlike CDs, vinyl, concert tickets or pieces of merchandise, data is inherently inexhaustible and indistinguishable from its copies; there is no concept at all of an original’s value that could be displaced. Yet, just as cigarette manufacturers fiercely resisted the undeniable facts of their product, data posed a mortal threat to music distributors: it held the potential to put them out of business entirely. And so began a decade-long tirade against the very nature of data itself. Wielding copyright law as their shining sword, the industry waged war on digital distribution in all its forms, painting the ripping and copying of music files as essentially equivalent to the theft of physical objects.

The contradiction inherent in this propaganda campaign is blindingly obvious: copying is not a zero-sum transaction. When a song is copied and transferred to another, nothing is deprived from the owner and the world is merrier with another copy of that song. Piggybacking on legal conceptions of property that have failed to adapt to this new reality, the war on piracy culminated with the injunction against Limewire, the consistent arrests of pirates that were threatened and charged with extended jail sentences, and multi-million-dollar fines against peer-to-peer filesharing networks in the late 2000s. Somewhere in the midst of this technological cataclysm, Spotify saw an opportunity to profit off the same model that hundreds of pirates were being punished for every day. Launching quietly in 2008, the pitch was as infuriating as it was simple: if traditional music publishing can’t handle the realities of digital distribution, let’s legalise its inevitabilities and profit off them.

That brings us to 2021, where smaller artists get apportioned a fraction of a fraction of a cent from Spotify per play, and music lovers pay money to Spotify to temporarily rent musical experiences rather than paying artists themselves. Where larger artists with a label behind them are able to farm plays with grey-market hacked accounts, and smaller musicians pay the penalty of their exploitation. Where, despite the American-dream mythos of being able to ‘blow up’ on TikTok, the reality remains that it is almost impossible to earn a living wage as an independent artist. It’s not that there are no avenues to support artists directly, but rather that the culture and public goodwill of paying artists in the digital age has been irrevocably contaminated by streaming.

If only the fangs of copyright law sank as deep as streaming platforms; if that were the case, this article would simply end with an encouragement to buy merch and music on Bandcamp where possible. The venom stings far worse when you begin to question the deepest copyright lie of all: that copyright protects artists’ profits and encourages the creation of new and ‘original’ works. Otherwise, the industry professes, how would artists make money at all? Wouldn’t everyone just rip each other off? Yet, the definition of ‘original’ is a legal definition to be settled in court – one with an ever-widening gulf between what is intuitively right and what a boomer Justice thinks is fair. The law is so hilariously behind any real understanding of music that lawyers still believe it is possible to own an original chord progression, melody or groove. As with anything that runs so deeply parallel to legal definitions, copyright cases will always favour those with deeper pockets and the financial freedom to handle extended civil trials.

But even beyond the legal technicalities, how could derivative or sampled works not be considered original? Even if we look to the genres that wear their blatant sample optimism on their sleeve – vaporwave, hip-hop, plunderphonics – can we really say that Macintosh Plus’ Floral Shoppe is not original because the mere sound source of the music was not physically crafted from scratch by Vektroid herself? The contrast in affective experience between Macintosh Plus and Diana Ross could not be further apart: the former is a dread-inducing, hypnagogic trip and the latter is an upbeat pop anthem.

Just like copyright law has falsely equated copying with theft, it too has incorrectly portrayed sampling as identical to plagiarism. Plagiarism is when an identical or near-identical work is published without credit to the initial author; sampling is the creative re-interpretation of a previous work as but one colour in an entirely new painting. Some of the most innovative and mind-blowingly musical projects from the past two decades have been built entirely on samples: The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, death’s dynamic shroud’s I’ll Try Living Like This and Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol. 1. Yet, these artists are legally prohibited from selling these works in their intended forms on any sort of scale. With this in mind, can we still pretend copyright protects artists’ rewards?

Beyond the legal iron wall of copyright lies the potential for utopia, both financial and creative. Piracy and peer-to-peer filesharing is not only the most effective means of archiving and storing in the internet age, but also presents artists with revenue streams that would never have been open to them otherwise: listeners who turn to fans and buy physical media from artists, fans who then choose to donate to artists because they have enjoyed the experience of their works (Bandcamp Fridays, anyone?), and fans who might not be able to financially access these experiences, who pass them on and recommend them to people who do — all pathways that eschew the landlord middlemen of streaming services like Spotify. And with free and open access to musical material, where derivative sampling can finally be seen as creativity-per-se, we might just get some of the sickest beats to have ever graced human ears.

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