OPINION: The rapidly changing business of art ownership
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One of the great innovations in American property rights is the legal framework of intellectual property. Copyrights and patents allow an inventor, author or performer to “own,” control and benefit from subsequent reproductions and use of his or her original work — almost in perpetuity. 

The modern media industry has grown to prominence mainly on the back of such rights. But not so far back in history, performers and authors were limited in the amount of notoriety and success their works could garner. Before the printing press, the radio, television or internet, creators were restricted to the immediate audience in front of them. Now, an author or performer can share his or her work with virtually the entire planet, both in real time and as an archived “catalog” of recorded material.

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In the modern era, those who own the means of distribution of works of art — as opposed to the artists themselves — have usually controlled the lion’s share of the earnings from artistic creation. They include, of course, publishers, record companies, film studios, broadcasters, television networks and even online content distributors such as search engines (like Google) and digital content aggregators and curators like YouTube.

But beginning with the internet, a new wave of disruption in the media industry began to take shape. The most notable example was the music industry, whose distribution model was completely turned on its head by online “piracy.” By some accounts, revenues in the recording industry fell by more than half from $14 billion to roughly $6 billion in less than a decade — primarily due to intellectual property theft.

On the other hand, artists themselves have been greatly empowered to create and distribute their own content online. So-called “piracy’ has actually benefitted some independent artists, enabling them to build large followings, and get their art before millions of eardrums and eyeballs virtually for free. Further, the technology of digital distribution means not a single drop of ink or tape need be “spilled” during the entire process from creation to eventual consumption by the end user — cutting out the corporate middlemen almost completely.

With so many distribution channels now available — digital “print” media, cable, radio, network television, online music and video subscription services like Spotify — content has become king. Recording companies and movie studios, with their vast libraries of copyrighted content, are once again poised to harvest handsome incomes from their catalogues. Michael Jackson bought the entire Beatles recording catalog for $50 million in 1985. That was considered an unheard-of sum for one artist’s catalog. Forty years later, Sony/ATV purchased the half of the catalog that remained in Michael Jackson’s estate for $750 million.

Thus, when Paul McCartney announced this year that he would be suing Sony/ATV to “terminate” their copyrights over certain of the Beatles recordings and reclaim ownership of them himself, the news sent a shockwave across the music recording industry. Both Jackson and Sony had made significant investments in —and profits from — owning the copyrights to songs performed by McCartney and the rest of the Beatles. Now, McCartney believes he is the rightful owner. Due to revisions in the Copyright Act of 1976 that give authors of recordings certain copyright “claw back” rights, he may be correct.

From the artist’s perspective, having the ability to retain control over one’s creative output has obvious personal and financial ramifications. If I didn’t own the rights to all of my media, I would be significantly less wealthy. Even more importantly, I would not be able to control the purposes for which corporate copyright owners might use my work — perhaps to sell beer or cigarettes (which I oppose on moral grounds). And then there’s the matter of fairness: Why should a corporation continue making literally billions of dollars for my artistic creation while shutting me, the artist, out of the ownership game entirely?

On the one hand, business owners who finance artists and are largely responsible for getting them in front of mass audiences need to know exactly what they are buying when they bargain for copyrighted material. On the other hand, artists deserve a share of the ownership as well as some say in how those creations are used by others. Hopefully the looming battle over reclaimed copyrights yields fairness to both concerns.

Michel is an original founder of the Grammy Award-winning singing group The Fugees. 


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.