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Corporate Art

Peter Barnes: Capitalism 3.0 — Chapter 8: Sharing Culture (pages 117-134)

For nearly two centuries, this arrangement worked brilliantly. There was no lack of creativity on either side of the Atlantic. But starting about thirty years ago, large entertainment companies began tipping the balance from the public domain to the private. Led by the Walt Disney Company, the corporations pushed Congress to extend copyright terms, first to seventy-five years and then to ninety-five. (The extensions occurred whenever Mickey Mouse was about to enter the public domain.) One consequence is that the public domain has been marginalized; corporations now take from the commons and give nothing back. Another is that the experience of culture has been altered; we’re now consumers of culture rather than participants.

Beauty and the Beast
Davy Crockett
The Legend of Sleepy
The Hunchback of Notre Dame The Jungle Book
Oliver Twist
Robin Hood
Snow White
Sleeping Beauty
The Three Musketeers
Treasure Island
The Wind in the Willows


This isn’t to say that corporate art is bad art; much of what Hollywood produces is astonishingly good. The trouble is that, with its massive advertising and distribution budgets, it tends to overwhelm local and live art. There’s more intimacy, spontaneity, and experimentation in this kind of art. Local art also builds community, not only among artists but among audience members too. The challenge is to have both this kind of art and corporate art.

One can imagine a culture in which free concerts in parks, poets in schools and libraries, independent theaters and filmmakers, and murals and sculptures by local artists in public spaces thrive alongside corporate entertainment. There’s no lack of artists who’d participate in such a culture, or of nonartists who’d appreciate it. The problem is how to pay for it.

What we need is a parallel economy for noncorporate art. Fortunately, models of such an economy exist. For example, there’s the San Francisco Grants for the Arts program, funded from a tax on hotel rooms. Since 1961, the program has distributed over $145 million to hundreds of nonprofit cultural organizations. It’s a prime reason the city pulses with free concerts, murals, film festivals, and theater in the park.

Then there’s the Music Performance Trust Fund, set up in 1948. To settle a dispute with the musicians’ union, the recording industry agreed to pay a small royalty from recording sales into a fund supporting live concerts in parks, schools, and other public venues. The fund was, and continues to be, administered by an independent trustee. In 2004 it sponsored over eleven thousand free concerts throughout the United States and Canada. Thanks to this system, sales of corporate-owned music support the living culture on which the recording industry ultimately depends.

These models could be scaled up. As a revenue source, consider what companies like Disney get with their copyrights. They get ninety-five-year protection for their movies, they get those FBI warnings on our DVDs, they get the U.S. government extending intellectual property rights worldwide, and they get police busting street vendors for selling “pirated” DVDs. That kind of protection is worth big bucks. Yet the companies’ price tag for it is exactly zero. (They do pay taxes, but so does everybody else.)

What if, instead of supplying copyright protection for free, we charged a royalty on sales of electronically reproduced music, films, and video games? This could be supplemented by charging broadcasters for their exclusive licenses, and advertisers for their invasions of our brains (see the following section). The resulting billions could be distributed, through a National Arts Trust, to local arts councils, which in turn would support community arts institutions and artists. Under this system, corporations would give back to a commons they now take from for free. More art would be live and local, and more artists would be employed. We’d have corporate and authentic culture at the same time. ... read the whole chapter




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Wealth and Want
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