David Bowie was a visionary artist who left behind a sprawling cultural legacy. But there’s one thing he got totally wrong: his claim that, by 2016, copyright laws in the United States would have been eliminated.
In 2002, David Bowie made some foreboding predictions in an interview with the New York Times about the future of the music industry, noting that intellectual property would be “in for a bashing” over the next decade. He went further: “I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years.”
Fortunately, 10 years have passed and intellectual property rights have yet to be overthrown. We can be thankful that his prophecy did not come true, as copyright laws continue to play an essential role in our creative economy — and have done so for centuries.
Take, for example, Italian opera. Italy was completely without copyright laws until Napoleon’s army invaded the northern part of the country in the late 18th century. It was at this point that the states of Lombardy and Venetia began to borrow the French legal concept, adopting copyright statutes in 1801.
Two economists recently published a fascinating study examining the impact of the then-new laws and discovered that they massively changed those states’ cultural industries. Compared with other Italian states, Lombardy and Venetia saw a 121 percent increase in opera production during the 19th century. The intellectual property protections actually attracted composers to the region, the authors of the study found, even though there is no evidence that the two states saw any other increase in immigration.
What’s more, the authors also found a 4.6-fold increase in the creation of historically popular operas — meaning artists not only produced more work, but better work. Who knows? Without Napoleon’s imperial tendencies, we may never have heard the brilliant overtures of Gioachino Rossini or the high-flying arias of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti.
That intellectual property protection helps creators is not necessarily a surprising revelation. Even Beethoven had to continuously fight off piracy from rival publishers. Just imagine how many other brilliant artists may have been stunted by an inability to protect their work!
Of course, the essence of what Bowie was saying wasn’t necessarily wrong. At the time that he predicted the end of copyright, music album sales had been decimated, and the Recording Industry Association of America blamed its woes mostly on Internet piracy. Certainly, over the past decade we have seen massive decline in sales and a complete overhaul of how artists do business.
But the legal infrastructure underpinning the music industry remains just as strong as it always has been. Sure, Taylor Swift still had to fight Apple to cash in on her royalties and Adele may be longing for CDs to make a comeback (perhaps she should write a ballad about it). But despite the rise in Internet streaming — and all those people who think they’re clever by downloading MP3 files straight from Youtube — artists still own their music and can make good money off of it.
There are copyright critics who say intellectual property has gone too far. Internet trolls are ridiculing Taylor Swift for trademarking the phrase “this sick beat,” and Warner/Chappell Music was soundly criticized for its long fight to the rights of “Happy Birthday to You.” (Don’t worry: It’s in the public domain now, so you don’t have to pay a fee every time you put candles on a cake.) Yet maybe these complainants have a point: Where there are lawyers, there is room for someone who wants to twist the law too far.
The real question, though, is what will happen in 2019, when copyright extensions will begin to expire. In the past, Congress has been willing to push off the problem to a later date, extending the life of a work’s copyright to 70 years past an author’s death. But the bill that allowed them to do so, passed in 1998, received quite a bit of backlash from economists who argued that legal protections of creative works increase the cost of producing new things.
It’s tough to say what the next fight in Congress will look like, but it’s unlikely that companies relying on copyright protections will give them up without a fight. We have some time to figure it all out, but with the 2019 deadline in mind, suddenly Bowie’s intellectual property concerns have new urgency. Disney, for instance, has only a few more years to figure out what to before it loses Mickey Mouse (he enters the public domain in 2023).
The most important part of the coming debate will be coming up with a fair solution that doesn’t unduly harm intellectual property rights. We have a number of questions to answer: How long should a corporation have, in effect, a monopoly on an idea? Is it right that the family of Jean Sibelius can disrupt concerts because they aren’t paid enough for the 112-year-old “Valse Triste”? If “Happy Birthday To You” is public property, what else should be?
Regardless, we should start the debate with an understanding that copyright isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and that its protections are a fundamental part of our creative economy. The government has a role in protecting ideas, and we should carefully examine technological shifts or proposed reforms that could infringe upon people’s rights.