If a copyright has no value, why does everyone want yours?
Being a creative worker in the world is like owning a house, except they take the key from you and tell you (nicely) you can sleep in the shed at the bottom of the garden. I’m thinking particularly of copyright.
Every lawyer, agent, manager, producer I’ve ever worked with has always said exactly the same thing to me. Oh, we take the copyright. It’s not important. It has no value. Don’t worry about it. Well, then if it has no value would you mind if I keep mine? You know, for purely sentimental reasons?
I’ve never kept this item of no value. I’ve asked for 50% (big laughs) 20% (chuckles) 5% (mild sympathy) 1% (let me check.) The answer is no. This thing you built, the blank page turned into value, this dream, and sometimes this shipwreck of a thing that kept you awake for years, is not yours. Not really. That’s not the world they built.
I say ‘they’ because sure as heck I didn’t build it. Nor any other writer, composer, artist, performer, designer I ever met. We wouldn’t build a world where when your work is finished it leaves the house without so much as a nod. You become like the forgotten parent sitting on a park bench wondering where the time went. A creative empty nester.
I don’t even try anymore. Not enough days left. Fine. I’m a worker for hire. Here’s the song, here’s the script, here’s the world. Have fun.
Believe me, I am not bitter about this. I love working. I love creating. A blank page is the most exciting thing. A book to be written. A script to pull out of the air. A character’s head to wander around, like Theseus lost in a maze, and the golden thread is what you spin out of the intersection of your imagination and your humanity. But that’s the trap, isn’t it?
Without the agents, and managers, and producers, and distributors, and golf clubs, and Teslas, and power-lunches (well, power zoom calls) there are no opportunities to stare at the blank page and dream something up. Believe me, if the way out of the solitude of my creative basement is my copyright, I’m handing it over tied with a big red ribbon. Landlords don’t take copyrights as rent.
What’s my point here? Respect, I think. And an itch that never goes away. Why did Michael Jackson buy up all The Beatle songs? And why did Paul McCarthy then spend years trying to get them back? For Michael, they were like beautiful paintings to hang on a wall and impress your friends. For Paul, they were life, his blood, his children. He remembers the dreams of creating them, pulling them out of the ether, the feeling he had when he was done. Man, if you could capture that feeling and bottle it, that would be something. Finishing a successful piece is the best feeling of all. You want to go by yourself to a restaurant and have a big meal. You want to go to the hills and hike. You are at peace with yourself. How rare is that? That’s the rarest thing of all.
So dear producers, and agents, and executives, when you blithely tell an artist you’re taking the copyright because ‘that’s the way things are done,’ understand what you’re asking for. You’re asking for a piece of an artist’s soul. You’re asking a parent for their child. Don’t be surprised by the look in their eyes and the tone of their words.
I deeply and fundamentally question a world where everything is commodified, where relationships are transactional, where copyrights are transferable. What drives an artist is none of those things. Everybody likes to get paid. Nobody wants to live on the street. But you’re not up at 4:30 in the morning working on a project every day for six years because you want to get rich.
Your imagination comes free with your purchase of a body. The price of your work is your humanity. Basically, you can’t afford to buy my humanity.
So here’s my copyright, a gift, as you asked, because that’s the way of the world, but be grateful, be respectful. As I said, I think it comes down to respect.