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To curb dangers of media consumption, let’s reconsider copyright law
Anxiety about the negative consequences of social media has overshadowed concern about traditional media, yet both social and traditional media tend to stoke overconsumption, exacerbate division and breed political disenfranchisement. In fact, these proclivities are arguably more pronounced with corporate media and entertainment than with Facebook and Twitter.
This is, in part, because our excessive copyright law provides Hollywood with massive financial incentives to flood the market with polished entertainment that people binge on, which prevents us from spending more time volunteering or going to social events (less than 15 minutes a day, on average, for each activity). Thus, excessive copyright protection has turned art - which is meant to inspire us intellectually and support us emotionally, to enable us to cope with the uncertainty of life and the finality of death - into a glossy corporate weapon that Hollywood wields to effectively imprison vast swaths of society. "We the people" are "doing time" in front of a screen.
Second, it is difficult to argue that corporate-owned media and entertainment has not done its part in exacerbating division, compared to social media. Critics blame Fox News and MSNBC for polarization, yet most reality TV encourages us to judge each other.
The discovery by foreign nations, fringe groups and the political establishment that social media can be used as a tool to mold our political views is old hat for corporate entertainment, which has been doing this more systematically, yet less obviously, for decades, through, for example, selecting what news to cover and what stories to tell through entertainment. The fact that awareness of this legitimate problem is itself fueling paranoia, disengagement from reality and polarization remains one unfortunate outcome of our overconsumption of media.
Countries are not defined by bridges, and only partially by borders, but by individuals and communities and the art they create, which shapes their culture and informs their governance. If all citizens were artists, broadly defined, our politics would be more equal and just, since we would all contribute collectively to our culture and political system. We would have the cultural equivalent of direct democracy.
Just as we let politicians represent us in government, we allow Hollywood to create our culture in our place, and we "vote" on our culture through consumption. While representative democracy may be the best we can hope for politically, we must do better than a representative culture. Our Hollywood-mediated culture has led to less political freedom and justice because Hollywood speaks for us, decides what values are important to us, and coins, or quickly co-opts, the terms we use to communicate. It does this not with our liberty or equality in mind but with a single-minded focus on its own profits.
One would think that the idea behind copyright - providing monopoly protection to artists as a financial incentive to create - would apply equally to all citizens, not just primarily entertainment multinationals and an elite group of artists. That is, however, as naïve as to imagine that everyone has the same ability to give campaign contributions and, hence, has an equal say in politics. Copyright protection was originally 14 years for books, maps and charts (with an option for a second 14-year term), yet has mushroomed into a monopoly for the life of the author plus 70 years after his/her death on almost all expressive work.
Such extreme copyright protection provides such vast financial incentives to corporations that they engineer entertainment - e.g., multinationals use data derived from paid volunteers viewing content while being connected to electroencephalograms (EEGs) to monitor volunteers' brain waves and galvanic skin response (GSR) sensors to note variation in the electrical conductance of skin to addict and trap us into overconsumption.
We need to come up with solutions to the harms of social media, but we also cannot forget to address the problems with corporate media and entertainment through significantly pairing back our extreme copyright system, which, in its current form, primarily incentivizes only the most sensationalized media and entertainment while providing little succor to serious report and art.
Reducing copyright's excessiveness will hurt professional reporters and non-corporate artists to a degree, but, more significantly, it will also level the playing field with corporate entertainment. While the evolution of the internet ultimately may require that journalism shift even further away from its reliance on copyright for funds, the news' main competitor for readers is the sensationalism and escapism that Hollywood and social media provide.
A return to a more rational copyright regime can be combined with establishing more effective ways to support worthy creative and intellectual efforts that unite us, inspire us to create, and motivate us to be politically engaged.
Martin Skladany is an associate professor of intellectual property, law and technology, and law and international development at Penn State Dickinson Law. He is the author of "Big Copyright Versus the People: How Major Content Providers are Destroying Creativity and How to Stop Them" (Cambridge University Press, 2018).