The Greens have come under fire for our policy on copyright
The Greens have come under fire for our policy on copyright

UPDATE: Caroline Lucas has now clarified the policy in a blog post, writing: “There’s been some concern expressed in recent days about an old Green Party recommendation that the copyright period be reduced to 14 years – as I understand it that’s 14 years after the creator dies, not 14 years from the point at which their work is first copyrighted.” 

Confusion/scandal over?

Some people, particularly artists, have expressed some concern about Green Party policy on copyright.

Now, my brother and sister are both artists by trade (she’s a singer/songwriter, he’s an actor/theatrical devisor). I’m a journalist and I’m planning on writing a book over the summer. So this is an area close to my heart too. I thought it would be worth putting this all in some context.

The line people are worried about says this:

“Introduce generally shorter copyright terms, with a usual maximum of 14 years”. A couple of things about this, then some context. First, my sister wrote an album about three years ago. It still gets a little radio play and similar, but, with little publicity, it wasn’t exactly a chart topper. If some big company took it in eleven years time, and marketed it, they could, with this policy, make a fortune selling it without my sister seeing a penny (though she would probably get a lot more and better paying gigs, so it wouldn’t be worthless). So I certainly get the concerns about the policy.

On the other hand, it’s worth acknowledging that the line didn’t just come out of nowhere. There are many contexts in which lengthy copyright can stifle creativity. I understand that the 14 year figure is based on the conclusions from an academic meta study into the optimal length of copyright for maximal economic returns. In other words, when you pool what all of the academic experts think about this complex question, 14 years is the average of their answer. That’s why this ended up as the Green position – it’s not just been plucked out of thin air.

However, I’m not going to get into the detail of arguments about copyright law. Most people who care about it know what they think and probably understand it better than I do. What I do want to do it outline some of the context, and explain why, even if you think this policy is idiotic, I still think Greens have the best policies for the arts.

First, though, a bit of an explanation about how Green Party policy works. Basically, twice a year, there is a conference. Any four members can get together and write a policy, which is worded as an addition to one of the already existing policy documents. We then debate those policies and if most people vote for something to go through, it is added to the document.

Each election, one elected committee of the party appoints someone to go through these documents, talk to experts, etc, and write a specific manifesto for that election – which is signed off by another elected committee. The line above comes not from the 2015 manifesto, but from the long-term policy documents. What the manifesto has to say about copyright is much more vague:

“We need copyright laws that reward creators but that are consistent with digital technologies” and “make copyright shorter in length, fair and flexible, and prevent patents applying to software”. But those are both in a section about “information and digital rights” and it’s not clear to me whether they are only meant to refer to software, or to copyright more generally. There’s no reference to copyright in the section on the arts.

The point is this. A few members have already said that they will bring a motion to change this policy at the Green Party Autumn conference. It’s not something which MPs at this election have committed to push for. Sure, democratic policy making in the Greens means that some things are a bit messy or just plain wrong. But they are fixed easily enough.

More importantly, though, here’s why I think that Green policies are better for artists, whatever you think about copyright:

First, the basic income would be a really big deal for the arts. Paying everyone an unconditional wage would allow artists time to get on with their art, rather than being bullied into applying for crappy jobs while signing on or forced to work in cafes for all the hours that the gods send. A massive boom in council housing and rent caps would make a significant difference too. The biggest problem my artist siblings and friends have is that, half the time, they need to do other jobs to be able to afford to live, which gets in the way of their art. These policies, combined, would significantly reduce, or get rid of that problem.

Second, the Green manifesto is proposing a £500 million a year increase in government funding for the arts, because: “Public support for the arts is part of a civilised society”. Obviously that’s only relevant to those who get such funding, but given that Labour, Tories and Lib Dems are all in effect proposing massive cuts in funding for the arts (in that they aren’t protecting it in a context of massive cuts), this is quite a difference.

twitterThird, Greens are proposing reducing VAT for live performances to 5%, and “modifying regulations so that small-scale live performance in pubs and similar venues is not stifled”.

Fourth, one of the most important funders of the arts in the UK is the BBC. And the Beeb is under pretty sustained attack from most sides, its budget for artistic work (rather than news etc) being under particular attack. In that context, this commitment from the Green manifesto is pretty important: “Maintain the BBC as the primary public service broadcaster, free of government interference, with funding guaranteed in real terms in statute to prevent government interference.”.

Fifth, Greens propose to phase in a 35 hour week. Giving people more free time is highly likely, I think, to lead to a boom in demand for the arts.

Perhaps most importantly, the thing stifling the arts is the same thing suffocating the rest of our society – increasingly powerful global capital, in this case, the big labels. The whole Green manifesto is a blueprint for shifting power from dominant global corporations to communities, from a sterile commodified, homogenous marketplace to a collection of human scale more democratic communities. Ultimately, that’s what the arts need just as it’s what society needs.

Whatever you think about copyright, we can be pretty sure that the vast majority of artists would be better off if the Green manifesto was implemented. In recent years, Greens have been the only party happy to make a case for the arts as valuable in themselves, and that, if nothing else, deserves support.