I heard this report on NPR this morning, and honestly, no matter how hard I try to empathize with the individuals interviewed, I can’t help but feel frustration and anger at their callousness about intellectual copyright.
The report basically explores the on-the-ground experience behind the huge piracy problems in China. Apparently, despite “official” statements condemning intellectual copyright theft, pirated DVD’s and CD’s continue to be sold at markets and street stalls throughout the country. Even worse, though, is the fact that American TV shows quickly make their way to pirated download sites on the Internet literally within minutes of their original broadcast in the States. One of the persons interviewed in the report is a “volunteer translator” who creates subtitles for these TV shows (including “Lost,” “Survivor,” “Heroes,” and “Battlestar Galactica”) by locating closed-caption transcript for the shows and beefing them up for the local market. He proudly considers himself a kind of cultural exchange coordinator, sharing American culture with his Chinese peers.
Okay, full disclosure here: I’m not exactly an innocent party. I used to rent videos of obviously pirated American films when I was growing up in the Philippines — it’s a wild, thriving industry over there. And yeah, I probably have a few bootleg DVD’s floating around in my collection. Most likely.
Still, I fully recognize the illegality of the practice and am not proud of it. My (admittedly weak) defense is that I legitimately paid for the use of these DVD’s, and I’m simply creating copies of them for my own personal use. It would be disingenuous of me, to say the least, to call myself a cultural ambassador. At best I’m committing a felony and a crime against international law.
As a writer, though, it’s more than just law-breaking on the part of the Chinese that I worry about. The reporter mentions towards the end of her segment that the next part in the series focuses on musicians who have given up on selling their work on the Internet because of rampant piracy and are now using other means to market themselves. I worry about a future in which artists and other creative professionals can no longer make a living out of their work because others feel that art — while necessary for their own enrichment — should be free. Never mind that artists find it difficult to create their best work when faced with juggling the demands of a full-time job unrelated to their craft. These people seem to think that artists have an obligation to create art but they themselves are unwilling to invest their own money in ensuring that it gets made.
Grrrr. I imagine a future where the only art available is crude, rudimentary, shallow, and commercial. The creative class no longer has the incentive to try and evolve as artists and are reduced to considering them as mere hobbies. Sure, there will be artists who will continue to make art for art’s sake, in the tradition of van Gogh, who never really held a full-time job and was able to devote himself to his art. Still, even he had to be supported by someone — in his case, Theo — and even then he suffered from terrible illnesses and mental problems that may or may not have crippled his gifts. Trust me, people, hunger and desperation don’t necessary make for great art.
I’ve read plenty of poor, sloppy writing in various publications who refuse to pay their writers despite big advertising rates and subscription numbers. The belief appears to be, Hey, there are plenty of writers out there who would kill to be published, so why not take advantage of that and make them think it’s a privilege to write for us? And it’s true, there are lots and lots of would-be writers who are so anxious to see their name in print that they’d submit to anyone, anywhere, regardless of the quality of the publication, just to be able to say they’ve been published. In the meantime the number of truly gifted, committed writers who have something genuinely important to say continues to dwindle, as the chance to make a living off of one’s art diminishes.
Imagine: a world without great art. A world where otherwise talented writers must surrender their dream in order to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Sure, they might scribble in the wee hours of the morning or the dark of night, but to what end? Just about every writer longs to be able to devote her life, her energies to creating great literature, but when it’s no longer possible because of the masses’ devaluation of art, what’s the point in continuing?