Has copyright EVER helped the little guy?
February 26, 2013 7:55 AM   Subscribe

I am of the firm belief that the copyright system in the US is broken, and in need of great reform. But I'm wondering if anyone has examples of copyright actually helping a small artist retain control of their work and/or get compensation from their work.

There are tons of examples of artists either:

a. ignoring copyright or giving their work away under creative commons and embracing their fans and reaping the whirlwind in terms of goodwill, merchandise sales, etc.

b. being sticklers on copyright and angering their fans by making their work inaccessible or by suing them.

I'm wondering if anyone has examples of artists who are pro-copyright actually finding themselves and their art protected by copyright law without raising the ire of their fanbase by using copyright protections to pursue people who are hijacking or otherwise stealing their work.
posted by to sir with millipedes to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ani di Franco is known for holding ownership to her songs, and I believe that has benefited her. Oprah Winfrey retained ownership rights to her shows when she was starting out, and that has benefited her.
posted by dfriedman at 8:00 AM on February 26, 2013

Without actually answering your question, bear in mind that laws are designed to prevent behavior as well as to punish it. You'll never be able to count all the people who buy rather than pirate because they're afraid of getting caught and/or morally opposed to breaking the law (rather than morally opposed to copying an artist's work without compensation), or unable to find easy ways to pirate due to large-scale anti-piracy efforts.
posted by Etrigan at 8:07 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's something about Difranco and copyright.
posted by dfriedman at 8:08 AM on February 26, 2013

The open source software world is dependent on copyright to enforce their licenses. Many open source projects are labors of love of single individuals.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 8:08 AM on February 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

It's a contentious assertion but one could argue that sampling has done this, allowing people who create catchy riffs that wind up being in giant smash hits to get compensated. Of course as with most copyright arguments you can say that the actual reverse is also true, that having to clear samples has a chilling effect on people's desire to reuse and repurpose music.

In software circles you have some licensing violation issues that have been ruled in favor of "the little guys" and/or at least resulted in settlements. Again this doesn't always go this way but it sometimes does. FSF vs Cisco is one example.
posted by jessamyn at 8:10 AM on February 26, 2013

It depends on how you define "little guy", but yeah . . . most of the "big guys" started out as "little guys" and got to be big by enforcing monopolistic control over their intellectual property.

Creative Commons is and application of our copyright system, BTW, so to the extent that people are using it and having success, our copyright system is helping them.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:21 AM on February 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

The great majority of authors and popular musicians throughout the C20th who managed to make a living from their work did so because of copyright laws. If publishers didn't have to pay authors for the right to reprint and sell their works, only a relatively tiny elite would be able to make a living from writing, and the same is true for selling recordings of your music. Piracy was a scourge long before the digital age; the only thing really new about digital piracy is that it's so much harder to police and prevent than the old fashioned kind.

So, yeah, it's incredibly easy to think of examples of "small artists" helped by copyright. Some of them, of course, were helped to become "big artists," some of them weren't.
posted by yoink at 8:24 AM on February 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

When it comes to authors, you could basically shake a stick and hit one. A lot of fiction writers are "small artist" if you consider it "small" to be making about the salary of a high school teacher from your work. Quite a few have just recently been getting a modest windfall by owning the digital rights to their work and selling the books on Amazon and B&N.
posted by BibiRose at 8:32 AM on February 26, 2013

Our firm enforces the "little guy's" copyright on a regular basis. You don't hear about it much because these disputes usually settle, and also because they happen all the damn time and really don't make much news unless social media gets its hands on it.

As an example, we represented an artist who had a gallery of illustrations on his website. His buddy walked into a big box store and saw a t-shirt prominently featuring his illustration. We sued everyone, settled, and got him some cash. Rinse and repeat, with settlements ranging from a few hundreds to the hundreds of thousands, and with "big guys" ranging from specialty catalogs to national retailers who are no stranger to infringement.

So while I'd agree that there are aspects of copyright law that need fixing, it's not entirely broken.
posted by schoolgirl report at 9:24 AM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

This guy just got a major fashion brand to pay for stealing his photos. It wasn't in court, but the fact that copyright law is pretty clearly on his side must have been a factor in DKNY's decision to donate to the photographer's designated charity.
posted by Etrigan at 9:35 AM on February 26, 2013

I license footage and images from indie photographers and filmmakers all the time. Sometimes they work through big agencies, but very often, they handle their works themselves. And lots of DVDs have small documentaries included as extras (Marc Cousin's I Know Where I'm Going, Revisited, for example.) Maybe they don't have huge fan bases, but certainly these sorts of artists are more protected by copyright than not.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:50 AM on February 26, 2013

I don't know if this is quite what you're asking, as I believe what I'm talking about is trademark, which is somewhat different, but I have an anecdote where a "little guy" was helped out by trademark law at least.

IANAL, so I may be getting some of the legal details wrong, but the story as I understand it is as follows:

A friend of mine owns a small business that provides a service to other businesses. Some years ago, he was slapped with a trademark lawsuit by a much larger, nationwide company who provides the same services under the same name, and was expanding their market to our area, and believed that he was infringing their trademark.

His lawyer did a bit of research and discovered that his business was incorporated and operating under that name, prior to the existence of the company who was suing him, so they were infringing on *his* trademark. (Not quite sure why the other company didn't bother to do the same research, and just approach him about buying the name, or maybe they knew, and just figured he'd roll over for the big, scary, corporate lawyers.)

With this bit of information, he gained the upper-hand, and counter-sued. He ended up settling out of court, and did give up the rights to his name, but not before walking away with a tidy sum.

I suppose it could be interpreted that the bigger corporation still "won", given that he ended up giving up his business name. But if it weren't for his trademark, they would have simply *taken* the name, and he'd also be stuck w/ the associated legal costs.
posted by zen_spider at 10:05 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know a little guy who gets royalty checks multiple times per year that I am sure he would't be paid at all if it weren't for copyright. Whether he was paid "fairly," is another question.

The same little guy also got a good chunk of money from giving away music and letting fans pay/donate as they wished. Though today, part of those royalty checks I mentioned above, is for licensing on that same music.

You seem to have a very narrow view of copyright.
posted by Good Brain at 11:58 AM on February 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

a. ignoring copyright or giving their work away under creative commons and embracing their fans and reaping the whirlwind in terms of goodwill, merchandise sales, etc.

b. being sticklers on copyright and angering their fans by making their work inaccessible or by suing them.

Copyright isn't anything like the either-or proposition you describe. The numbers of "little guys" who have profited from copyright protection, while at the same time providing the fruits of their labors to fans and garnering their goodwill far outnumber the successes under your a. scenario.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:18 PM on February 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding yoink.

Or how about Zoe Keating, from this answer to a recent AskMe? You can look at the GoogleDoc spreadsheet she made public and see that she made about $50,000 in 6 months from iTunes and Amazon mp3 downloads. Without copyright, Apple & Amazon wouldn't have had to pay her a dime.

The same holds true for all musicians with material on iTunes, no matter how big or small they are.

One of the historical and current purposes of copyright is to ensure that the "little guy" creator gets compensated when the "big guy" manufacturer/distributor/marketer wants to use the artist's creative output to make money. It's not about rare special snowflake examples where copyright helped a small artist retain control and/or get compensated - control and compensation are inherent in the very concept of copyright, for all artists, big, small, or somewhere in-between.

How fairly and thoroughly that concept of copyright is implemented and enforced is another question entirely, but that's not the question you asked.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:02 PM on February 26, 2013

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