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Some Thoughts for Congress About Creativity and Copyright

By Mark Hosler

The following is what Negativland's Mark Hosler left behind with congressmembers and staffers during his trip to Washington, D.C.—Editor

Hello Congressman _________, and thanks for letting me visit your offices here in Washington DC. As a founding member of the group Negativland, I am here to offer some perspectives on the surprising and exciting directions that art (music, video, web sites, etc.) and technology are taking in the world today, and how this new explosion of creativity is colliding with our sometimes outdated copyright laws. It's rare that artists get to speak to you on behalf of art, and so I want to thank you and the folks at for letting me visit you.

From our 28 years of being creators, observers, and consumers of music, art, and video, our group, Negativland, has witnessed incredible and wonderful shifts in the ways that the public is now able to create and distribute new work via digital technologies. We've also witnessed amazing changes in the way that money and corporate power has increasingly influenced policy, Congress, and the laws of our nation. At times, these changes are good. At other times, as I am sure you know, they benefit no one except the businesses lobbying you. We are concerned when this does not serve the public good.

We believe that the healthy evolution of art and creativity has more value than simply counting how much money is lost or made. Art, science and technology have evolved because of how we all build upon the ideas and works of those who came before us. Copyright was always intended as a balancing act between giving ownership to creators so as to provide incentive to create new works, and allowing works to lapse into the public domain so that new ideas could develop. But our founding fathers could never have imagined the kind of world we live in today and the amazing new technologies that we are surrounded with—technologies that encourage and inspire us to interact with the world and create in unprecedented new ways. Protecting the author of a creative work is a good thing, but the benefits of copyright have been thrown off balance by the disproportionate influence of those with the most money. In fact, the more recent expansions of our nation's copyright laws represent a break from our nation's past and from the intentions of our own Constitution.

Did you know that copyright originally lasted only 14 years, and then all work fell into the public domain? The limit now is 70 years plus the life of the creator, meaning that nothing made in our lifetimes will fall into the public domain. This does not strike us as a very good public good. Even patents, which govern everything from industrial processes to pharmaceuticals, are given only a 20-year period before other manufacturers have access to them, and this system seems to have done nothing to discourage innovation, creation, and especially remuneration in the fields of science and technology with this relatively short time span.

But why make art out of things originated by others? We think that unless one is lucky enough to live on a remote island somewhere, we all live in a world surrounded by news, music, movies, ads, logos and messages. We are, quite literally, bombarded with media. It has always been a part of human nature to make art in response to and using material from the world around us. Nowadays, anyone with a small computer can easily make, remake, slice, dice, mix, and remix from any electronic media they can get their hands on. And because we can, we often do. This creates a new kind of cultural "conversation" that we can all have with the media around us, a conversation that we believe is healthy for a vibrant democracy that aspires to true freedom of speech.

Copying has gone on in art and music throughout the ages, from "quoting" in classical music compositions, to homage and parody. In much of the last century, these "appropriation" practices were the province of the avant-garde and the fine art world. But with the Internet, the ever-growing speed of computing, YouTube, MySpace, file-sharing, and other recent developments, they have now moved wholly and firmly into the mainstream. And yet our laws strive to criminalize all of this behavior. Ours is a world in which copyright has fallen woefully behind the curve of what the public actually wants to do with all that digital "stuff" out there. Millions worldwide are creating art, music and video that incorporate elements of existing work—cutting and pasting bits and pieces of music, video, text, and pictures made by others to create new works. Millions of web pages now use various Creative Commons licenses to provide a nuanced alternative to traditionally black and white interpretations of copyright laws (one such license Negativland helped to write). The prevalence of these alternative copyright strategies is a testament to how many of your constituents are not at all happy with copyright as it stands now.

At this juncture, we feel it's necessary to point out that we support artists and creators being paid for the work they produce. We believe copyright was correctly intended as a judicious balance between providing for the creator as well as providing for the public commons, a balance which Negativland believes has been largely forgotten by the big businesses who produce and sell most media and entertainment. And we should also mention that all this creative re-use of material rarely if ever puts new work in economic competition with its sources. It does not pose any reasonable economic threat to the original source in any marketplace that they share. In an ideal world, Negativland would like to see the notion of Fair Use expanded to accommodate, accept, and protect these new practices.

I hope that my brief presentation today can give you some new perspective on this type of art and creativity, and that the next time some restrictive intellectual property bill crosses your desk or a lobbyist from the music or movie industry comes into your office to push for even stricter copy protection and more extreme legal punishment for those who break copyright laws, you'll keep in the mind the millions of folks out here whose creative efforts are criminalized by what has become, intentionally or not, a thoughtless and short-sighted application of what were once some very well-intended laws protecting owners as well as the public commons.

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