The Artist and his Audience

The history of copyright reflects the struggle of artists to reach audiences, from direct personal interfaces to the printing press and the Internet. Despite the symbiotic relationship between artists and publishers, the Internet has allowed artists to directly access audiences. Recent amendments to India’s Copyright Act and government clarifications have further extended the scope to Internet broadcasting companies, potentially unlocking vast music catalogues, though the direct benefit to artists remains unclear.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

Artists have always struggled to get their works in front of an audience. The history of copyright is the saga of how technology has helped them achieve that.

Before technology, the artist-audience interface was direct and personal. The only way to hear a minstrel’s song was to be a part of the crowd. If you wanted to read an author, you had to go to the monastery where his work had been hand-scribed. The challenge with artistic endeavours in those days was that the size of the audience was naturally constrained.

Then came the printing press—an innovation that replaced the laborious process of scribing with a mechanical technique that generated multiple identical copies of a book with minimal effort. All of a sudden, authors were able to reach many more readers than was previously possible. In those early days, authors were just happy to have a larger audience, but that quickly faded as they realized how much more publishers made without any of the creative and intellectual input.

The world’s first copyright law—the Statute of Anne—was enacted in 1710. It granted authors exclusive rights over their works, effectively taking those rights away from publishers. While this may have appeared to have benefited the authors, in actual fact, it changed nothing. They still needed publishers to help get their books into the hands of their audience and publishers needed the assurance of exclusivity to consider investing in a book. So, publishers simply bought the copyright from the authors and went about their business as before.

This reliance of artists on the financial muscle and the distribution network of publishers has been the underpinning of copyright law throughout its history. Even today, little has changed, whether it be in the context of record labels, whose mammoth studios have the power to transform unknown artists into megastars or the production houses of Hollywood and Bollywood that are the engines of the film industry. Artists have always needed the economic and financial support of publishers who, for their part, need the talent and creative genius of the artists in their stable to make them more than just infrastructure without content. It is a symbiotic but strained relationship—one that artists often rail against—but which has, for better or worse, been responsible for the growth of global creative industries to their current size.

Things would have continued in this vein if it wasn’t for the explosive growth of the World Wide Web. Thanks to the Internet, artists across the spectrum suddenly found that they had an unprecedented ability to directly access their audience without needing to rely on the financial or distribution power of an intermediary.

Andy Wier self-published his novel, The Martian, and watched it become so popular that it was made into a major motion picture starring Matt Damon. Online video production houses, like The Viral Fever, generate serialized video entertainment that you can only watch on the Internet. Artists no longer need intermediaries to get their creative works in front of viewers. The Internet provides the pipes through which books, music and film can reach anyone who cares to consume them.

Thanks to social media, recommendation algorithms and the many other wonders of the connected world, the investment in marketing this content is far less than it used to be when publishers were the only conduit to the public. So, how is a publisher to remain relevant in this new hyperconnected world? Well, if you’ve amassed a huge portfolio of content over the years, you simply refuse to allow it to be played unless you’re paid for the privilege. Copyright societies that control creative catalogues have become excessively vigilant, scouring the Internet for infringement and demanding license fees—even threatening to shut down sites that carry allegedly infringing content—in some cases, despite the fact that the artists themselves have no objection to such use.

In 2012, the government of India amended the Copyright Act to insert a new Section 31D into the Copyright Act. This provision was designed to improve access to copyright works by offering broadcasting organizations the ability to obtain a statutory license to broadcast literary or musical works or sound recordings. All a broadcaster has to now do is notify copyright holders of its intention to broadcast and pay them royalties prescribed by the Copyright Board. Once this is done, the publisher cannot object to its broadcast.

Last week, the government of India issued a clarification that extended the scope of Section 31D to Internet broadcasting companies—giving streaming media platforms the opportunity to unlock catalogues of music that have been accumulated by record labels over the years. While it isn’t immediately clear how this benefits the artists, at least now our access to these works has improved.