Copyright is Screwing Over Your Favorite Artists

By Leo Rector

For many people, the topic of copyright holds a connotation of protecting artists. After all, artwork does fall under the category of intellectual property, and the blatant theft of someone else’s ideas for the sake of financial gain is the crime that copyright law was originally intended to punish. However, media companies and record labels have found a way to manipulate copyright, weaponizing it against both original artists and remixers alike. High-profile disputes between production companies and artists are not a new phenomenon; musicians such as John Fogerty and Prince have been battling with record labels since the ‘80s and ‘90s. But as the art distribution industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar business, corporate giants have exploited copyright law against the very people it was supposed to protect in order to increase their bottom line. 

The dawn of the internet era saw record labels facing a major dilemma: audiences no longer needed physical copies (records) of music to enjoy their favorite artists. Production companies that for decades had monopolized the distribution of music became vulnerable to internet services like Napster, a threat that the industry did not take lightly. The ensuing copyright wars of the late ‘90s and early 2000s marked a watershed moment in the use of copyright, as everyone found guilty of infringement faced legal action funded by production companies, no matter how small the offense. The purpose of this widespread litigation targeting was to stop the damaging trend of internet piracy that robbed individual artists as well as the industry as a whole.

While the war on piracy may have initially been a good thing for artists, it also served to increase record labels’ stranglehold over copyright law, as music industry lawyers became adept at drafting contracts that guaranteed labels power over royalties and copyright ownership. Musicians aren’t legal experts, and many have been tricked into signing away their masters to labels in perpetuity if they come out of contract. When the label dictates the release schedule for new projects, funding for tours and music videos, and publicizing new work, artists often face a tradeoff between sacrificing their creative autonomy or voiding their contract and losing the rights to their own music. Lil Uzi Vert’s feud with Generation Now/Atlantic Records prevented him from dropping new music and delayed the release of Eternal Atake for more than two years. 

The alternative to signing a deal with a label is going independent, which has become far easier and more financially viable since the creation of platforms like SoundCloud. Although independent artists generated roughly 7 billion dollars in revenue in 2021, they still represent a tiny fraction of the overall music industry, and cannot compete with the distribution capabilities of the billion-dollar production companies. Even artists who boast about their status as independent (cough Chance the Rapper cough) eventually realize that labels are necessary to achieve the highest levels of money and superstardom. Rather than a function of utility, the influence of record labels and production companies stems from a history of copyright exploitation that allows the industry to stay in power over the artists. 

Beyond the music industry, media companies have taken advantage of the vague definition of fair use in copyright law to intimidate smaller, independent creators with litigation, and in the age of the internet, de-platforming. The manipulation of fair use is most apparent on content sharing websites, especially YouTube, where original content is remixed for new purposes that include commentary, parody, or even good ol’ fashioned creativity. Some of the most powerful media corporations in the world, like Disney, have far more resources available to win a possible court battle than the average content creator, so the threat of copyright infringement is often enough to bully the remix creator into submission. The safe harbor provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) give online platforms like YouTube immunity from copyright infringement by its creators so long as the platform takes down the infringing content and removes repeat offenders from the platform. This has led to YouTube creating algorithms that unfairly take down millions of videos that should be protected under fair use, and the platform’s appeal process is not thorough or efficient enough for creators. To make matters worse, there is no statute of limitations on how long after a video is posted it can be taken down for copyright infringement, nor is there a set of guidelines for how much material must be borrowed to constitute copyright infringement. YouTubers such as Jimmy “Mr Beast” Donaldson have lost thousands of dollars from videos that were taken down or demonetized over simply singing a song lyric, humming a melody, or including brief visuals from movies or TV shows. While YouTube should be protecting the people that draw in billions upon billions of viewers to the platform every year, the company instead seems content to collect its revenue from advertising without upsetting the all powerful media companies.

At a time when the internet has allowed artistic expression to blossom and culture is no longer monopolized by a handful of corporations, the billion-dollar media and production companies that made their fortunes from producing and distributing physical art tokens have weaponized copyright law against remixers and creators not for the sake of the art itself, but to increase their own profits. As both art enjoyers and burgeoning intellectuals, it is important for students to recognize this damaging trend, and to call out corporate exploitation whenever possible. It is our money that allows record labels and production companies to maintain their dominance over copyright law; even the small act of supporting independent artists by buying art directly from the artists can have a massive impact on the overall landscape of industry profits. For the sake of the creativity of generations to come, combatting the art industry’s use of copyright is a necessary step to defeating the corporate monopoly of art.

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