I was watching a rerun of the South Park “Fish Sticks” episode, and at the point where Cartman wants to trademark their ingenious, widely-popular joke and Jimmy explains that that’s not how jokes work, it occurred to me.
It’s not how art works, either.
I’ve long believed that copyright law, in its modern application, is not actually conducive to creation, due to all kinds of mostly boring intellectual property arguments that I won’t get into. But I have only recently realized how much copyright law is founded in a lie, which is this:
We, artists, create content.
Like many artists and thinkers before me, I subscribe to the notion that we are nothing but conduits – and, at our best, we channel higher forces into the physical world. We own nothing. We “create” nothing – or rather, the merit in what we create, especially when it is universal and timeless, is not of our making. Sure, we can rhyme two lines on our own:
Yesterday I flew to the moon
And flew back not a moment too soon
I am certainly the creator of this couplet, and it is with fair certainty that I can determine its unprecedented uniqueness.
But in order for our work to have resonance, to have meaning, to communicate, we need an extra element. And we do not own that element; we can’t conjure it up, we can’t synthesize it, we can’t facilitate it. At its best, we can channel it. That is why we know some of our work is good, even when nobody else seems to know it. Because we sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that we didn’t create this work as much as help it take shape and form in our world.
We are not mothers, we are not fathers. We are midwives.
Copyright law is based in Protestant work ethics, in the American Dream; we deserve to reap the rewards of our work and the law helps us protect that right. But there are truths that do not conform to our ethics, to our perception of the world. And while it is entirely fair to say that a carpenter who births a chair owns it and the right to sell it, things get a little iffy when it comes to songs or paintings or poetry. It’s a timeless cliche that songs don’t “belong” to their creators; as soon as they catch on fire, they belong to everyone. As it their meaning, which is not the sole property of the person who made them (I could cite many hundreds of examples if I could be bothered; you’re probably familiar with many yourself).
That is because, at their most communicative, resonant, universal, natural best, nobody made them.
So why should we pretend someone did? Because of money? Copyright law is famously in place to incentivize creators; but is that an incentive that real creators need? In an age of democratized means of labor, of welfare and luxury, of ever-increasing leisure time (even if some of us choose to put that leisure back into our work), do we really need to protect anybody from the financial hardship that is often associated with making art? Art is a calling, art making is a privilege. You want a 9-to-5? Go do something useful. Art is its own purpose. I’ll stop here before quoting the first page of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and neddlessly namedropping Theofile Gautier or his detractors.
Creation is its own reward. Steven Pressfield likes to quote Krishna’s saying to Arjuna – “You have the right to the labor, but not to the fruits of your labor”. He means it in the sense of letting go, of not being accountable for the fate of your work once it’s out in the world, of moving on to the next project rather than brooding on the failure (or worse, success) of anything you’ve created. It’s a valid lesson, but – if taken to its full logical extent – it means something more devastating, something that not a lot of creators would admit. It means we don’t own inspiration, and we don’t own its fruits. It means art should be given to the world, as a universal expression, as a fleshing out of the great ethereal unknown, as a droplet from the ocean of the collective unconscious. If it catches on, count yourself lucky; you are a good conduit because you helped birth something that many recognized as true for them, true for all, true. But beware of the false conclusion, that popular Hubris that afflicts so many of us, the notion that we made our work. We didn’t “make” anything any more than a tree “makes” a leaf, or that spring “makes” summer.
If we’re lucky, we participate first-hand in this eternal process, as helpers, as witnesses. But thinking we own anything is a fool’s errand; and the current era of name-your-price art, piracy and cheap means of manufacture is but a natural market correction to remind us that we own nothing but the right to our labor.