For nearly two centuries, this arrangement worked brilliantly. There was
no lack of creativity on either side of the Atlantic. But starting about
thirty years ago, large entertainment companies began tipping the balance
from the public domain to the private. Led by the Walt Disney Company, the
corporations pushed Congress to extend copyright terms, first to seventy-five
years and then to ninety-five. (The extensions occurred whenever Mickey Mouse
was about to enter the public domain.) One consequence is that the public
domain has been marginalized; corporations now take from the commons and
give nothing back. Another is that the experience of culture has been altered;
we’re now consumers of culture rather than participants.
DISNEY STORIES TAKEN FROM THE PUBLIC DOMAIN
Beauty and the Beast
The Legend of Sleepy
The Hunchback of Notre Dame The Jungle Book
The Three Musketeers
The Wind in the Willows
DISNEY STORIES ADDED TO THE PUBLIC DOMAIN
This isn’t to say that corporate art is bad art; much of what Hollywood
produces is astonishingly good. The trouble is that, with its massive advertising
and distribution budgets, it tends to overwhelm local and live art. There’s
more intimacy, spontaneity, and experimentation in this kind of art. Local
art also builds community, not only among artists but among audience members
too. The challenge is to have both this kind of art and corporate art.
One can imagine a culture in which free concerts in parks, poets in schools
and libraries, independent theaters and filmmakers, and murals and sculptures
by local artists in public spaces thrive alongside corporate entertainment.
There’s no lack of artists who’d participate in such a culture,
or of nonartists who’d appreciate it. The problem is how to pay for
What we need is a parallel economy for noncorporate art. Fortunately, models
of such an economy exist. For example, there’s the San Francisco Grants
for the Arts program, funded from a tax on hotel rooms. Since 1961, the program
has distributed over $145 million to hundreds of nonprofit cultural organizations.
It’s a prime reason the city pulses with free concerts, murals, film
festivals, and theater in the park.
Then there’s the Music Performance Trust Fund, set up in 1948. To
settle a dispute with the musicians’ union, the recording industry
agreed to pay a small royalty from recording sales into a fund supporting
live concerts in parks, schools, and other public venues. The fund was, and
continues to be, administered by an independent trustee. In 2004 it sponsored
over eleven thousand free concerts throughout the United States and Canada.
Thanks to this system, sales of corporate-owned music support the living
culture on which the recording industry ultimately depends.
These models could be scaled up. As a revenue source, consider what companies
like Disney get with their copyrights. They get ninety-five-year protection
for their movies, they get those FBI warnings on our DVDs, they get the U.S.
government extending intellectual property rights worldwide, and they get
police busting street vendors for selling “pirated” DVDs. That
kind of protection is worth big bucks. Yet the companies’ price tag
for it is exactly zero. (They do pay taxes, but so does everybody else.)
What if, instead of supplying copyright protection for free, we charged
a royalty on sales of electronically reproduced music, films, and video games?
This could be supplemented by charging broadcasters for their exclusive licenses,
and advertisers for their invasions of our brains (see the following section).
The resulting billions could be distributed, through a National Arts Trust,
to local arts councils, which in turn would support community arts institutions
and artists. Under this system, corporations would give back to a commons
they now take from for free. More art would be live and local, and more artists
would be employed. We’d have corporate and authentic culture at the
same time. ... read
the whole chapter