By Dorrissa D. Griffin, Esq.
Debate has recently centered on the Protect IP Act of 2011, whose fate currently lies in the Senate. While hardly sensationalistic for the headline of the day, the bill has far-reaching impact if passed: it establishes a system for blocking the domain names of non-U.S. based sites that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has determined act largely to promote copyright infringement.
Meaning: if you are going to produce it, you need to get paid for it. This is a principle construct fueling copyright law.
Sites being targeted by the DOJ are chiefly dedicated to bootlegging U.S. films, music, or selling counterfeit products such as apparel or pharmaceuticals. Opponents of the bill fear arbitrary and overbroad action by the DOJ resulting in misuse of the Protect IP Act. Yet, proponents are pressing for passage, believing the bill is narrowly tailored and strong enough to protect the rights of copyright holders.
There is little debate, however, concerning the immense creative contributions of minorities in the entertainment industry – that, in and of itself, warrants the protection Protect IP would provide. Dare I say: America would not be where it is now without the global influence of Black innovation (e.g. music, poems, and art) over the past century. Gospel, Jazz, Blues, Rock-and-Roll, and today’s Hip-Hop and Pop music have made indelible cultural, social, economic and diplomatic marks on the global landscape.
Also equally un-debatable is the abysmally low level of minority wealth. In July, the Pew Research Center revealed that the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of Black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. Pew also found that around one-third of Black (35%) and Hispanic (31%) households had zero or negative net worth, compared with 15% of white households, based on 2009 Census Bureau data. A quarter of minorities have no assets to speak of other than a vehicle — and for those who are poor and tend to drive older cars, their assets are probably not worth much. Aside from a person’s business or profession, many factors contributing to wealth including home ownership and generational wealth that’s passed down from ancestors.
Minorities in all professions appear impacted by the wealth gap. But minority content creators – those who are responsible for creating music, movies, and other media that sets the tone for popular culture in this nation – have experienced casual and commonplace theft of their creations, which have in many instances left them penniless.
In his law review article, “Copyright, Culture, and Black Music: A Legacy of Unequal Protection,” for example, Professor K.J. Green of the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, identified four different patterns of infringement resulting from inadequate intellectual property protection for Black music artists who have decried theft of their creations: Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Frankie Lymon, and Chuck Berry. These patterns consist of outright appropriation of content, unconscionable sale or transfer of the copyright, imitation or “cover songs” by White performers for commercial benefit, and distortion of Black culture through negative stereotypes or dilution of the music for “cross-over” appeal to white audiences.
Fortunately, the recording industry has greatly reformed its practices, making it an exemplar of equal opportunity. However, this has not been the case in the online world, where today’s Internet pirates simply copy and use copyrighted material without permission or remorse.
Minority artists are impacted the most by this kind of theft because minority artists, writers and filmmakers often have little wealth (the wealth gap being as vast as it is) – except for their intellectual property. And once that gets stolen, nothing is left.
“Blacks, deprived by legal and social segregation and discrimination of access to capital, property, and the best jobs, could least afford to miss the opportunity of residual income offered by copyrights,” argued Greene. However, thus far the African American community “…has not reaped the benefits of its phenomenal creativity…. [because of] outright fraud …. [g]reed…. [and] exploitation.” Certainly, today’s dedicated infringers practice nothing short of greed, fraud, and exploitation … though not solely because of racial prejudice.
In light of past struggles, many new artists and producers have turned the wealth tides in their favor. Artists such as Missy Elliot, and several rappers from the New-Orleans based Cash Money Millionaires, Inc., own the rights to their own music. In the motion picture space, Spike Lee and Tyler Perry – to name a few – own their productions. These artists have made record setting amounts of wealth because they have ownership of their brand and productions.
But content theft is still an issue, especially online. Recent data from the Motion Picture Association of America indicates that almost 25 percent of “all Internet traffic is copyright infringing.”
Copyrights incentivize creators and foster a competitive and creative environment that allows the United States to maintain its presence as a leader in media content creation. But as statistics cited by the MPAA demonstrate, that “$58 billion in economic output is lost to the American economy annually” because of copyright theft of media like music, movies and video games. It’s costing all content creators money and curbing the nation’s viability in a fragile economy.
The Protect IP Act is so important to diversity because it protects the one asset minority content creators have: copyrighted works. It supplements and amplifies the efforts of those currently engaged in the fight to reduce African American unemployment and build wealth in minority communities. It ensures that criminal websites that infringe upon the copyrights of creators are penalized, and thus protects the livelihoods of minority content creators.
The Protect IP Act has the potential to put the minority community one step closer to closing the 20:1 wealth gap. It can also ensure that the struggles of artists like Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Frankie Lymon, and Chuck Berry — who have made immeasurable struggles to this country — were not in vain and their unfortunate histories will not repeat themselves among new minority artists who continue to transform the nation’s pop culture landscape.