TOPIC GUIDE: Copyright and the Arts

"Copyright benefits the arts"

PUBLISHED: 01 Sep 2012

AUTHOR: David Bowden & Jacob Reynolds

Share this Topic Guide:

Download topic guide (500k)


In April of 2012, the High Court ruled that several of the UK’s largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were legally obliged to block access to the file-sharing site ‘The Pirate Bay’ [Ref: BBC News]. The move was welcomed by most in the record and film industry as they have argued that the free access to vast swathes of Intellectual Property (IP) costs the industry, and ultimately the artists, billions of pounds each year. Critics of the move suggest that it is part of wider attempts to clamp down on internet freedom in response to file-sharing. However, this particular controversy reflects a long-running argument about the role of copyright in the arts industries, and perhaps more profoundly, arts relationship both to its creator and wider society. Copyright has existed, though always disputed, as a method of protecting artists’ intellectual property since the eighteenth century, when parliament decided to create a law that would protect books from piracy. More recently the issue of copyright has come under fire with the growth of the mass media, particularly the internet. Crucial to understanding the debate is the question of whether art can ever be owned by an individual or company (especially its creator) or whether it belongs to an intellectual sphere free of normal property restrictions. Does copyright, as some argue, protect the integrity of the arts and its creator? Or is the public benefit of the arts stifled by its imposition? With large sums of money at stake in some arts sectors, and very small amounts available in others, it is a debate which transcends easy cost-benefit analysis and straightforward technical solutions and goes to the heart of the question of what society understands art to be.

For further reading use the menu bar on the right hand side.


This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Digital rights and wrongs
Copyright law has evolved as technology and society has adapted to different methods of consuming art, which seeks to balance both rewards to the creator and the benefit to society of access to free knowledge and ideas, known as the public domain [Ref: Economist]. This is currently divided into economic and moral rights over ownership granted to the creator [Ref: Art Newspaper]. Always controversial – famously Disney has extended almost indefinite copyright over characters taken in part from the public domain - the development of the internet age has given the debate a new urgency [Ref: Observer]. How then do we balance an artist’s interest in their own with society’s interest in that work as part-and-parcel of both its artistic heritage and artistic innovation? Critics argue that copyright has now moved beyond its original intentions and is being used as a method to stifle creativity and the free exchange of ideas, a shift that is detrimental to the dynamic of artistic innovation [Ref: Guardian]. It is claimed that just as the printing press created a need for copyright, so the ‘freeconomy’ of the internet should signal its end [Ref: Wired].  But what would this mean for the arts? Copyright, say its supporters, allows judgment to be exercised over how a work is reproduced. Wouldn’t art – particularly in an age of digital reproduction – descend into anarchy without the judgment and control individual artists have over their work? However critics insist that attempts to maintain the status quo can only ever become more restrictive and unworkable, as evidenced by Vince Cables suggested ‘rowing back’ on some of the elements of the Digital Economt Act [Ref: Guardian].

Valuing artists?
Inevitably, the contemporary debate on copyright often hinges around a fundamentally moral discussion about whether piracy is ‘stealing’. Some artists argue that copyright is the best way to realise and reward their creative labour [Ref: Wall Street Journal]. Without intellectual property protection, some argue, the creative industries cannot survive [Ref: New Statesman].  Neither is it just the wealthy songwriters or superstar visual artists who benefit from copyright, says songwriter Helienne Lindvall, but the smaller independent artists who rely on the income that it guarantees. But others remain unconvinced. It is argued that copyright is predominantly beneficial to powerful companies with expensive legal teams, who effectively restrict the creative freedom of individual artists to protect their pay-packets [Ref: New Yorker]. David Lowrey, a musician and songwriter, has received exposure for his impassioned attack on the Free Culture movement (Ref: The Trichordist). Central to his case was a moral critique of a generation of people have been happy to pay large sums of money to hardware and network ‘mega-corporations’, whilst refusing to pay the musicians for the music they create. Such discussions often lead to a consideration of the place of companies such as Google, who have arguably profited from being able to sell adverts next to links to pirated material. In 2010 Prime Minister David Cameron ordered another review into UK IP law, a review that was quickly dubbed the ‘Google review’ (Ref: Guardian) owing to the governments concern that a company like Google could never have started business in the UK, and recently Shadow Deputy Prime Minister Harriet Harman has voiced concerns about the influence that Google seems to have on UK government policy (Ref: The Register). The broader technology industry is clearly wielding more lobbying power, as seen in the demise of copyright laws SOPA and PIPA in the US (Ref: New York Times). However, is this ‘political coming of age for the tech industry’ merely a reflection of the changed attitudes of consumers with regard to copyright, or, as Lowrey argues, has the industry had an instrumental role in undermining the incomes of artists?

Standing on the shoulders of giants?
Underlying this debate is a complex tension between creativity and originality. Art often draws inspiration from other works, and it is this tendency to borrow which generates the most conflict with digital rights [Ref: Guardian]. An art-form such as hip-hop, it is argued, would have struggled without the ability to sample and essentially steal copyrighted work [Ref: New Statesman]. The 2006 Gowers Review of Intellectual Property argued that copyright needed to strike a balance between ‘incentivising’ creativity while allowing freedom so that ‘innovators can see further by standing on the shoulders of giants’ [Ref: HM Treasury]. The phrase was made famous by Sir Isaac Newton, whose discoveries helped shape mankind’s understanding of the world and improved people’s lives through technological advancement. For opponents of copyright, the phrase highlights the absurdity of assuming human creativity and endeavour will only occur through financial incentives: many great artists rarely made a penny. But for commentator Andrew Orlowski, attacks on copyright often act to undermine the role of the artist in the creative process and ignore that the arts are an industry with economic needs like any other [Ref: spiked]. As journalist Cory Doctorow notes, the question should be approached by going back to first principles and asking what copyright should be doing [Ref: Guardian]. Does copyright allow artists to stand on the shoulders of giants, or does it restrict expression and creativity?  


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Copyright comes a cropper in the digital age

Robert McCrum Observer 9 January 2011

Copyright and wrong

Economist 8 April 2010

Art and copyright: what’s at stake

Simon Stokes Art Newspaper April 2009


In defence of the Digital Economy Act

John McVay New Statesman 12 July 2010

Copyright critics rationalise theft

Mark Helprin Wall Street Journal 11 May 2009

Music: Support from the masses

Christopher Thompson Financial Times 24 November 2008

This digital utopianism is glorified piracy

Andrew Orlowski spiked 9 October 2008


The Permission Problem

James Surowiecki New Yorker 11 August 2008

“Intellectual property” is a silly euphemism

Cory Doctorow Guardian 21 February 2008

Stealing beauty

James Clasper New Statesman 6 November 2006


What do we want copyright to do?

Cory Doctorow Guardian 23 November 2010

The real cost of free

Helienne Lindvall Guardian 19 November 2010

The borrowers

Colin Burrow Guardian 6 December 2008

Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business

Chris Anderson Wired 25 February 2008

Culture Warrior

Sandy Starr spiked 2 July 2004


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Who runs UK? ‘Tories, Lib Dems and Google’ says Labour

Andrew Orlowski The Register 4 July 2012

A Political Coming of Age for the Tech Industry

Jenna Wortham New York Times 17 January 2012

The Hargreaves Review

Intellectual Propery Office May 2011

Q&A: The Digital Economy Bill

BBC News 9 April 2010

At a glance: Digital Britain

BBC News 16 June 2009

Copyright this!

Worldbytes 2009

Music: Support from the masses

Financial Times 24 November 2008

Stealing Picasso? Copyright in a digital age

Andrew Gowers et al Battle of Ideas 2008

Gowers Review of Intellectual Property

Andrew Gowers HM Treasury 1 December 2006


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


At a glance: Digital Britain

BBC News 16 June 2009

Copyright this!

Worldbytes 2009

Stealing Picasso? Copyright in a digital age

Andrew Gowers et al Battle of Ideas 2008

This site contains links to websites operated by parties other than Debating Matters. Although we make every effort to ensure links are current, they will sometimes break after Topic Guide publication. If a link does not work, then the publication reference and date should enable you to find an alternate link. If you find a broken link do please send it to the webmaster for review.

© 2005-2022 Debating Matters Competition, boi, Unit 208, Cocoa Studios, The Biscuit Factory, Drummond Road, London, SE16 4DG, UK

Tel +44 (0)20 3176 0827 - | admin login