Book review: Copyright, Creativity and Big Media

This is a book review of ‘Copyright, Creativity, Big Media and Cultural Value: Incorporating the Author’, by Professor Kathy Bowrey, UNSW, Sydney. Bowrey is a legal historian and socio-legal researcher whose research explores laws and practices that inform knowledge creation and the production, distribution and reception of technology and culture. 


The methodology of this book is interdisciplinary and socio-legal, so there is a lot to unpack. As a result, it is not a light read. It seeks to address questions of how copyright generates income and how distributions of profits are allocated in the publishing, film and music industries. To do so, it surveys the incorporation of authorship into modern industry dynamics and embarks on a history of the media industries in the 20th century, linking the relevance of that history to 21st-century grievances about copyright. 

A primary objective of the book, as set out in chapter 1, ‘What is the significance of authorship in copyright?’, is to trace how the culture industries came to be perceived as copyright industries connected through the idea of authorship, with the aim of critically examining the role of authorship and its connection to copyright in the emergence of concentrated corporate control and the consequences for national cultural industries and diverse creators.

Chapter 2, ‘Revisiting author theory in the domain of law’, situates Bowrey’s interest in authorship alongside postmodern critiques of the author-function, in particular copyright scholarship inspired by Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes in the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter 3, ‘A tale of three literary copyrights’, explains how value is generated over the life of copyright, through the crime stories of Hugh Conway, Fergus Hume and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Bowrey argues that the rise in availability and popularity of crime, mystery and detective stories was sponsored by changes to copyright commercialisation practices, which facilitated the full potential of modern copyright law to be exploited internationally.

Chapter 4, ‘Imperial copyright and its costs’, focuses on how copyright came to be exploited internationally, leading to the division of publishing markets into two spheres ruled from London and New York. The chapter draws extensively on personal papers of the romance writer Sir Thomas Henry Hall Caine (1853-1931), who was a prominent advocate for universal copyright and was instrumental in the campaigns against Canadian copyright supremacy – after their threat to withdraw from the Berne Convention. 

Chapter 5, ‘Print capitalism meets Hollywood, the work of industrial authorship’, provides an analysis of cultural markets and copyright control. As Bowrey explains “it was the new multi-national companies and cross-industry alliances that were empowered while the natural rights of the author were de-natured, diluted, and copyright’s ideologically celebrated characteristic property – primarily rewarding creative, as opposed to commercial, endeavour – was fundamentally disrupted.”

Chapter 6, ‘Why does a gramophone maker deserve a copyright? The role of celebrity, women and consumer markets in the music industry’ looks at the role of intellectual property in the rise of a technology company. It takes the British Gramophone Company (1897), which was linked to the large US firm, His Master’s Voice (HMV) that became EMI (1931–2012) as its case study. In advancing a feminist reading of the industry, the chapter exposes the invasions of privacy and other abuses involved in the effort to recruit Nellie Melba (1861–1931), darling of the opera season at Covent Garden and the New York Metropolitan Theatre, and what she received from the arrangement. Bowrey argues that it was more the management of cultural agendas and the ideology of intellectual property rights that propelled the firm to success, rather than the strategic management of legal rights. She goes on to state that it was the relationship with Melba and the celebrity of other recording artists that was leveraged against music publishers to establish a novel kind of copyright for recording companies – an exclusive right to their sound recordings. This chapter argues that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the recording industry is and does; instead of focusing on the contractual rights arrangement, Bowrey asserts that at the heart of what the recording industry transacts and disseminates, alongside the music, is a gendered construction of image, name and persona that influences our understanding of the cultural value of creativity and individual contributions to it. The conclusion is that “addressing institutional discrimination is not about changing attitudes alone, but more critically considering the history of the legal objects and subjects of the trade. One place to start is to ask ourselves why there has been so little change from the basic terms and conditions of Melba’s early 1900 contracts to those of the present day.”

Lastly, chapter 7, ‘Why Margaret Atwood, Radiohead and Banksy are not anti-copyright’ explores responses to the corporatisation of creativity by three well-known creators and cultural commentators. Here, Bowrey argues that, contrary to popular anti-establishment sentiment that blames multinationals for the rise of corporate control at the expense of creators, the most commercially successful creators discussed in her book – Conan Doyle, Hall Caine and Nellie Melba – actively participated in developing the new commodity forms and markets in ways that were mutually beneficial to the growth of international cultural markets and the corporations they transacted with. She notes that although these collaborations, and those within and across industries, were not meant to suppress authors and artists, they were designed to grow company profits first and foremost. She believes that it is a good thing that creators today need to make important decisions about the production and distribution of their content, audiences, brand and licensing terms, rather than relying upon others. This is based on the successes of the creators considered within the book, who exercised a higher degree of agency and considered the terms of the incorporation of their authorship into commodity relations.

“Change in the significance of copyright and better outcomes for creators can come about when the value of authorship is reconsidered in light of a deeper understanding of how law functions in the cultural marketplace.” Bowrey states her hope that her book will support this endeavour by drawing upon a more critical understanding of copyright’s history in the 20th century and, in helping shift how relationships between art, law and society are perceived, deliver more control over creative lives than was evident in the previous century. As the introduction explains, this book is “grounded in extensive, painstakingly detailed and colourful original archival research into business histories” and will therefore be of particular interest to students and researchers of legal history, law and policy, media and cultural studies. 

Published 2022 by Routledge

228 Pages 7 B/W illustrations

Available as paperback, hardback and ebook 

ISBN 9780367631154

Book review: Copyright, Creativity and Big Media Book review: Copyright, Creativity and Big Media Reviewed by Hayleigh Bosher on Saturday, September 03, 2022 Rating: 5

No comments:

All comments must be moderated by a member of the IPKat team before they appear on the blog. Comments will not be allowed if the contravene the IPKat policy that readers' comments should not be obscene or defamatory; they should not consist of ad hominem attacks on members of the blog team or other comment-posters and they should make a constructive contribution to the discussion of the post on which they purport to comment.

It is also the IPKat policy that comments should not be made completely anonymously, and users should use a consistent name or pseudonym (which should not itself be defamatory or obscene, or that of another real person), either in the "identity" field, or at the beginning of the comment. Current practice is to, however, allow a limited number of comments that contravene this policy, provided that the comment has a high degree of relevance and the comment chain does not become too difficult to follow.

Learn more here:

Powered by Blogger.