11 12 2003
The Emperor's Sword: Art under WIPO
by Brian Holmes (FR)
Two white-marble busts have been placed in the corners of the conference room at the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva. A couple of ancient Greeks. On the left is Aristotle, with an inscription: "The method of investigation is to study things in the process of development from the beginning." So it's a decent start anyway. But on the right is Alexander the Great: "The brave man sees no end to his efforts for good works."
Art is ambiguous. But the WIPO busts are perfectly clear. Either you're on the left, with philosophy, progress and evolution – or you're on the right, with property and "infinite justice."
OK, Aristotle was Alexander's teacher. But times have changed since then. Does anyone think it's still possible to stand in both corners: on the left and the right, on the side of open communication and of legal enclosure, evolution and empire?
Sadly, even tragically from a Greek point of view, the answer for many artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers is a resounding "yes". With some consequences I'd like to mention.
The Company You Keep
Most artistic types are generous, open-minded, inquisitive people who sincerely believe in freedom. John Cage is remembered as saying: "I don't know what art is, but I'm sure it doesn't have anything to do with the police." Yet artists are increasingly forced to keep the company that Cage refused, by accepting payment through the copyright system – the linchpin of "immaterial imperialism."
One function of copyright today is to make artists the allies of the established order. When we assert our rights to some tiny piece of our cosmic aspirations – or just sign them over to a distributor – we join forces with the officers who, according to a proposed European IP enforcement directive, will soon have the right to enter people's homes, to find out whether they might be harboring any of our precious private property in their hard disks, CDs, cassette tapes, or even photocopies. One of our proprietary dreams could be hidden, for example, beneath the sheets. Artists, how does it feel to be in someone else's bed – with the police?
Recently in Paris, in a discussion with some striking actors, directors and theater workers, a composer stood up to defend the French version of copyright: what they call "droit d'auteur". For him, it was a matter of religion. When asked if the cops should be sent out to a rave in the woods where some kids might be playing his music, he unhesitatingly answered "oui". Not only was his livelihood at stake, but it's a question of principle. He was proud to belong to the best composers' rights organization in the world. Apparently it has 100,000 members. Of course, just 2,500 have a vote, because you have to earn 5,000 euros a year. In fact, only 300 actually make a living off their royalties, he finally admitted. That's 0.3% of all the musicians. So why do the others bother? What makes them do it?
"Attack on the Signature"
What you have to say as an individual is the important thing: that's where most of the artists, writers, filmmakers and composers will agree. Copyright was invented to protect the work and the author's signature, it's Beaumarchais, democracy, European history. That's right – it's history.
Arpad Bogsch, former director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization, explained to a publishers' seminar way back in 1990 that because of the evolution of technology and the rise of the "electrocopy", it was necessary to take a historic step backwards into the future. Increasingly, the privileges that traditionally accrued to the creators of artistic works would be extended to the publishers – on a worldwide scale. Let's read this brave soldier's clumsy words: "At the WIPO Worldwide Forum on Piracy of Broadcasts and the Printed Word in March 1983, the idea emerged that the 'know-how' developed by Alexander the Great in respect of the Gordian knot should be applied here also: instead of trying to handle the said serious problems on the basis of the complex and exclusively differing national copyright laws, a neighboring rights-type protection should be recognized for publishers." Neighboring rights, friendly people, we're all partners here. Just one more question, painters and poets: Apart from the Gordian knot, what else is Alexander going to cut to shreds in your neighborhood?
Crocodiles are cold-blooded creatures to whom nature has given lots of teeth. They are known in myths and legends for shedding copious tears, to soften up their future victims. A representative of the creative industries, invited to the 1990 WIPO seminar, quoted his poor old father as saying this: "Counterfeit is an attack on a signature". The wounded "artist" was Bernard Lacoste – the guy whose corporation puts their expensive trademark on shirts made for nothing. Poor Bernard, let's cry together. Artists, writers, filmmakers and composers offer the perfect logo to make IP look chic. "You are what you wear", they like to say. And what about us? We are what they eat.
Chronos and the Ancient Greeks
What's copyright? The tax of dead labor on the living. And who's Chronos? The god who consumes his offspring. Time's running out, we've got to get back to the beginning. What's tragic, every time a piece of creative work is signed off to a distributor or a publisher, is not the ridiculously tiny sum the artist will receive. It's the privatization of words, emotions, ideas, images, dreams. It's a lock on the door that art comes from. Technological development, born from public universities, has finally given us the chance to share our creativity with everyone. And today, 99% of non-starving artists live off public money anyway. Why uphold the myth of author's rights, by signing onto the same laws as the worldwide capitalist coalition? Why join their plans for cannibalizing the future? What kind of philosophy is that, anyway?
Not long ago, the heirs of John Cage tried to sue someone for using just part of his 4' 33" of silence. Speak up while you can, painters and poets! Where would Aristotle be today – if Plato had been hit with a lawsuit from the Socrates estate?
Brian Holmesbrian.firstname.lastname@example.org is an art and culture critic, activist and translator, living in Paris. His primary interest is in the intersection of artistic and political practice. Amongst others he is author of “Hieroglyphs of the Future: Art and Politics in a Networked Era” (Zagreb: Arkzin, 2003).