In a speech that steered clear of policy proscriptions, but that urged a need for creative thinking about copyright and content distribution, former President Bill Clinton on Friday called for further discussion “about the need to give people an appropriate return on their ideas and development of them, and presentation of it, in film and music and in other areas, and the need to give it as quickly as possible to the world.”
Clinton’s speech came at the Creativity Conference, a half-day meeting hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America, Microsoft, and Time Magazine, where participants ranging from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to HBO CEO Richard Plepler discussed issues in the creative economy ranging from federal research and development investment to copyright. While there was a clear consensus on the first issue, with even Cantor, who has focused on spending cuts, suggesting that the government had a valuable role to play in research and development, some participants spoke frankly, and even harshly, on the subject of copyright.
“So I think a very good business plan [is] here, use somebody else’s content for free, deliver it, don’t pay them anything, and build a $500 billion silicon valley company, and then have cool slogans like ‘We just want to help the world,’” said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of the Weinstein Company, appearing to refer to YouTube and its parent company Google. “They’re stealing. That’s what they’re doing. My artists, they can’t be artists if they’re hungry. The starving artist, trust me, that’s a myth. When you’re starving you’re starving. It’s hard to be creative in that situation.”
Clinton, by contrast, sought to establish a different framework in his remarks, suggesting that the conflict in creating copyright policy was not between who should be allowed to profit from the creation of individual work, from music to pharmaceutical development, but between balancing the interests of content finding a wide audience and making it sustainable to develop. “We have to keep struggling to find the right balance between creativity, broadly and quickly shared, and as widely understood as possible, and making it reasonably profitable for people to be creatives,” Clinton argued. As one example, he praised Saint Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, which does not accept fees for services, but encourages patients whose families can pay to make ongoing donations to the institution, and which voluntarily makes public significant amounts of its data to aid in drug development. Alternate funding mechanisms for all kinds of creative work were clearly on Clinton’s mind during the speech. He offered as an example of content where the need to see it widely distributed outweighs the need to make money off that content Bridegroom, a short film by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason about a gay couple, each of whom grew up in separate conservative communities, whose relationship ended tragically when one of the men died in an accident, and his late partner’s parents banned him in the funeral.
“It’s a gripping portrait of how people are grappling with all of these identity questions. It was 100 percent crowd-funded,” Clinton said, explaining that Bloodworth-Thomason didn’t need to make further profit from it. “I think there are a lot of these kinds of films about gender discrimination, girls sold into sexual slavery, boys sold into bondage. There would be a plethora of things where you don’t want intellectual property to get in the way of immediate and powerful exposition of problems the world all over that can be dealt with by people on the ground, NGOs, who also will be crowd-funded because of this.”
His description of a flexible system where creators could retain or waive varying levels of copyright, depending on whether their interests were weighted more towards making money or towards exposure of their ideas is similar to Creative Commons, the voluntary licensing system that allows creators to grant permissions for different levels of use of reproduction of their work. A more flexible system — particularly in conjunction with a creative payment scheme to mimic services like Spotify and Pandora that would ensure artists get some compensation when an outlet like YouTube makes money off the reproduction of clips from their work, something Weinstein suggested — might help lower the tenor of ongoing debates about copyright. But the existence of a more flexible licensing scheme wouldn’t necessarily resolve questions about how to apply it, particularly as they play out between large companies that are trying to put together a mix of very profitable and less-profitable-but-still-worthy products, creators whose priority is for their work to reach its widest audience, and consumers who may not be able to pay for the content they want to consume, or simply may not want to pay for it.
On those questions, Clinton was largely silent, suggesting only that “We need to have a more explicit framework to nurture and support creativity,” and offering a sentiment that is surely comforting to all parties to the debate over the future of copyright: “Nothing is permanent.”