Law in Contemporary Society


"It's pure theft, stolen from the artists" Joseph Biden, on internet piracy.

Increased intellectual property protections can stifle competition, harass average citizens, restrict creativity and have a chilling effect on free speech. Against these arguments, the entertainment industry presents a simple message, faithfully regurgitated by the Vice President above.

This essay will focus on the fallacy that government support for the major copyright owners is a benefit to the creative artists, both present and future, who produce "television" and examine the possibility that the internet can help return creative control to the next generation of video artists.


"Isn't it great to live in a country where a cigar-smoking puppet and a bear that masturbates are considered 'intellectual property'?" Conan O'Brien, former host, "The Tonight Show"

Work For Hire

On its face, the work for hire doctrine is fairly straightforward. It states that any work created by an employee or "specially ordered or commissioned for use as a contribution to a collective work," (such as a television show) is the intellectual property of the employer. In practice, entertainment companies use the term "commissioned" very loosely: any script or pilot they buy, even if developed independently, is deemed a commissioned work.

As a result, not only is Conan's self-stimulating bear property, it is NBC's property, despite the fact Conan created the character and developed it over a period of many years. Moreover, Jerry Seinfeld doesn't own "Seinfeld". Roseanne doesn't own "Roseanne." In fact, just five companies own the copyright to almost every American television show.

As Eben has explained, the concept of work for hire began as an effort to incentivize printers to print literature. And perhaps it once made sense to continue this incentivizing concept in the world of television, when production involved enormous up-front costs. Today, however, while an artist may need to sell a show to an entertainment behemoth like Viacom for it to actually be on television, such companies are no longer necessary to simply producing "television": short, serialized video stories acted out by the same group of characters.

The advent of digital film has allowed high-quality videos to be made on tiny budgets with accessible equipment. The Internet provides an easy and free method of distribution. From the point of view of a creative artist, freedom from the shackles of the copyright industry creates enormous potential, both in the type of stories that artist will be able to tell and the manner in which she will be able to tell them.


That fact that the owners of the creative work aren't creative people but businessmen results in art being treated like any other product, which has a number of deleterious effects.

To begin with, any new, creative idea must compete directly with old ideas in the form of the dreaded "remake." Copyrights owners search out ways to make their stores of copyrighted material pay and pay again, even when those remakes fail and fail again. The desire to continue monetizing existing copyrighted material is a natural one for a business, but it quashes actual creativity that might otherwise flourish.

Corporate ownership of creative works also diminishes the ability of the artist to tell her stories in the way she would like. Television shows are broken into segments, each of which must end in a way that leaves the viewer both "wanting more" and in an emotional state that is receptive to whatever advertising he is about to see. Even though television writers labor with great care to make these artificial story developments seem organic, the viewer instinctively feels the falseness of what he's watching.

The "productization" of television affects more than just the form TV must follow: it directly impacts the content that can be shown and leads to the type of homogenized story telling we know all too well. The art is only useful so long as it sells advertising, so it must conform to particular (and sometimes ridiculous) content standards. In some cases, artists may even be subjected to corporate censorship.


"Would the network like it if everyone who watched it for free on the Internet actually had to pay? Yes. But it always ends up helping us when people can see the show." Matt Stone, co-creator, "South Park"

In homes all over America there are people with a digital video camera and a story to tell. For most, widespread acclaim for their work will never arrive. Perhaps their story won't strike a nerve with viewers, perhaps they lack the ability to relate their story in an interesting manner. Some of them, though, will produce art that we will want to see. But there is a good chance that we never will, and that would be a tremendous loss.

As Matt Stone says, the most important ingredient in determining the success of a television show is that it be seen. The Internet provides the opportunity for a video artist to shout, "Here's what I can do!" The problem is that the artist must somehow make herself heard around the endless advertising cajoling us to watch the latest remake of an old show starring that actress we sort of like; advertising that is financed by the copyrights held by a handful of companies and rigorously defended by our government. Whether we would rather see that show instead of something small, personal and amateur is unimportant. We should be rooting for that video artist to succeed, not helping five corporations make ever greater profits so that one day, if that artist does make her voice heard, they can force her to cede her copyright to them, call it "work for hire" and start revving up the Emmy campaign.

-- By JohnSchwab - 11 Apr 2010

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r9 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:31 - IanSullivan
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