Research Blog Series: Copyright at the Digital Margins

John Street presents UEA research on musicians’ attitudes to copyright, for the Research Blog Series


Investigators: John Street and Tom Phillips, University of East Anglia

Copyright is seen as central to how creative industries work. It is the means by which revenue is generated and creative people are rewarded. But what do those who are presumed to be the beneficiaries of copyright law actually think about copyright? Do they think about it all? And if they do, what do they understand by ‘copyright’?

These were some of the questions that we sought to answer in our research into musicians’ attitudes to copyright. We wanted to know how and when copyright impinged on their creative lives, and whether their interest in copyright was a direct consequence of the income it generated, or of other factors, such as the musical genre they inhabited or their moral and political views.

Our research was set against the background of the rapid digitalisation of the creative industries and the need felt by national and trans-national (the EU) authorities to reform copyright policy accordingly. It is widely assumed that digitalisation is transforming the business models of the creative industries. Linked to this assumption is the thought that, in a digitised world, copyright becomes even more central to the income stream upon which creativity relies.

While these assumption may well hold for those at the top of the music industry’s food chain (performers like Adele or Ed Sheeran or the major record companies), do they also hold for the vast number of other musicians who reside lower down the chain? We focused on musicians for whom music was not their only or main source of income. We conducted a small survey to see whether and how attitudes to copyright varied with them musical genres, with age and experience, with different creative practices (writing, recording or performing). We followed this up with a series of individual interviews in which we explored in more detail musicians’ attitudes to copyright.

What we found was that knowledge of copyright is partial and sometimes vague; and that this knowledge is acquired from diverse sources and circumstances (from managers, recording engineers, and occasionally from the classroom). We also found that attention to copyright increases when money is involved, but that crude self-interest doesn’t explain everything. Political and moral attitudes intervene, determining whether musicians think of music as something they ‘own’ or as intimately linked to their sense of integrity. So too does genre and creative practice. Copyright matters less to jazz and folk musicians than it does to others; it matters more in relation to recordings than to live performances.

Our findings chime with investigations into consumer attitudes to copyright and piracy, and confirm that, whatever the big players and policy makers assume, attitudes to copyright are more complex and diverse than might be assumed. There is, of course, scope for further investigation. We cannot claim that our sample was statistically representative. Nonetheless, the central suggestion remains: any attempt to develop an effective and legitimate copyright regime needs to take account of the attitudes and understandings of all those who might benefit from it.

For more information see: Tom Phillips and John Street, ‘Copyright and musicians at the digital margins’, Media, Culture and Society, 37(3), 2015, 342-358 and John Street and Tom Phillips, ‘What Do Musicians Talk About When They Talk About Copyright’, Popular Music and Society, 40(4), 2017, 422-433 

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