European governments should liberate the films and television series that they fund from copyright law, both as a matter of fairness to their own citizens, and as a pragmatic matter of cultural and industrial strategy.
Europe makes extraordinary cinema, but despite its poignance, audiences around the world more often choose to watch movies and television series from Hollywood. There are historical reasons for this imbalance of cultural gravity, although today the main explanation is inertia. America only dominates the planet’s cultural landscape because it has done so for a long time, and nobody has made a serious and clever attempt to replace it.
Europe holds all of the cards for that game, but thus far it has failed to play them. This post proposes a strategy: the people of Europe should demand free, creative commons (CC) licensing of all publicly-funded media after a few years; and European filmmakers and financing bodies should treat this not as a burden, but as an extraordinary opportunity to build much bigger audiences for their craft.
The Internet is the principal cultural venue of our times. The dilemma for creators is that it is hard to get paid by Internet audiences for cultural creativity. From Napster to the Pirate Bay, from YouTube to Facebook, it is much easier to reach people than to be paid by them. American Internet companies have invented cunning but devious ways around this problem, paying for free “content” by building a vast advertising and private surveillance industry to fund production indirectly.
Which is, fundamentally, why Europe’s position should be so strong. Europe’s cinema is publicly financed. It doesn’t need to be under-funded, like almost everything on YouTube, and it doesn’t need to spy on people to survive. In the past five years, European states spent in the order of €15 billion of their citizens’ money on filmmaking. What did those taxpayers get for their euros? They got films that they could not watch, sadly often beautiful and brilliant films that nobody watched, films that are now locked up for over a 100 years in the dungeons of copyright law.
This is a system of the purest folly. The people of Europe are being cheated of their half of the bargain: the right to freely watch the creations they have already paid for. But European filmmakers are being equally cheated of the global audiences that their work deserves.
But this situation is easy to fix. Whenever European governments put money into the production of film and television, there should be a non-negotiable clause in the contract: the producers get exclusive copyright for three or five years, after which the film must be placed under a creative commons license for at least non-commercial use. Once films are in the commons, websites should be funded to encourage their promotion and distribution.
In addition to CC-licensed sharing, remixing should also be allowed – though not necessarily as a part of the license, because we cannot expect great artists to consent to the re-purposing and complication of their visions. Instead, remixing for the purposes of art and culture must be categorically allowed by copyright law, because today we know that great art and grand theft are often indistinguishable, and copyright law that interferes with remixing and collage is an affront to the very profession that it was intended to protect.
Letting the world watch great European films without toll gates, turnstiles and complex licensing rules is only part of the solution. The liberation of Europe’s cinema should be combined with the right kind of promotional campaigns to get young audiences around the world to realize what they’re missing out on if they look only through Hollywood’s narrow window on the world. If
all it takes is a single click for a teenager in Islamabad or Ohio to be immersed in a magical story, it’s not so hard to make that happen. Probably, the campaigns should begin with viral promotion of recent classics that nobody outside the cinema world has heard of. With time, it could spread much wider.
Many players in Europe’s film industries will be skeptical of suggestions like this. In the world they came from, long-lasting copyright was a desirable source of income (and status, and reassurance) beyond public subsidies and early sales. The world has changed — using copyright to permanently prohibit free online sharing is now almost certainly bad for producers, directors and actors. But you shouldn’t take my word, or anyone’s word, on this question. The right way to answer it is with data: ideally randomly controlled trials, where producers don’t know if a given film will be in the CC licensing and promotion program until after editing is complete. The statistics will show which strategy is better for European cultural production.
Meanwhile, Europe is missing a grand opportunity to upstage Hollywood in the same way that Wikipedia upstaged Britannica, Google upstaged Microsoft, or MP3s upstaged the CD. On the Internet, public funding is a superior technology.
And well, if nothing changes, the elites that control Europe’s film industries will lounge on the beaches at Cannes and in other comfortable and well-funded places, siting idly by while America tells the world how to dream, and how to live.