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Encouraging unique (and non-partisan) government innovation in arts and culture

When people talk about government innovation the discussion tends to revolve around new projects, new buildings and new technologies that the public sector either should be creating or should be directly investing in.

But one of the most potentially breakthrough innovations that our government could do to be a Gov 2.0 leader in arts and culture doesn’t cost anything and doesn’t expand the government at all.

Copyright laws, often thought of as laws meant to protect those who invest time and money into creating something new or unique from others financially gaining off of their contribution for free, were actually created under more utilitarian principles, not personal or commercial interests.

The ‘Copyright Clause,’ Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution empowers Congress: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

An idea like this would probably be called socialist by mainstream media or an equally superficial source today. However, between James Madison and Charles Pinckney, the idea of allowing the government to grant someone temporary ownership of, at the time, mostly literary creations, was born on August 18th 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, and solidified when the Constitution was written.

But the goal wasn’t necessarily protecting private financial gain, but rather a larger societal advancement of ideas and innovation, and the constitutional framers recognized that providing some protection was necessary towards that end.

In this spirit, I think it’s necessary to re-evaluate what exactly copyright laws are doing, and to make sure they are accomplishing what the people who created the law intended them to. Let me ask you this: Could you see James Madison cheering the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) on when they sued a 12 year-old girl who lived in subsidized government housing with her single mother for damages up to $150,000 per song that she downloaded over a service she paid for and thought was legal? Doubt it.

Although the RIAA, or sister organization for the movie industry, the MPAA, claims these lawsuits aren’t about money, does anyone actually believe them? They are upset because they haven’t been able to keep up with changing technology and consumer landscapes and have lost business to a totally economic market-generated solution, which is online file sharing and DRM-free (Digital Rights Management) music and video downloading. Yet, so far they have been fairly successful in using the government to promote their own financial interests.

However, if the government wants to spur innovation or the progression of culture and the arts, they could start by standing up to these special interests and creating a legal landscape where kids aren’t afraid to use their favorite song in a spontaneous YouTube video or school project.

Relatedly, one of the interesting ideas floated out recently in the spirit of helping leverage the public sector to advance culture and arts is creating a cabinet-level position of “Secretary of the Arts.” Qunicy Jones, all around music/arts mogul and winner of 27 Grammys (79 nominations) said, “My passion in life now, and one of the first conversations I’ll have with President Obama, is to beg for a Secretary of the Arts.”

When looking at public sector innovation, people tend to imagine a great behemoth of a federal program slowly eating up tax dollars while providing either very little or very specific benefit to certain people. But it doesn’t necessarily have to happen that way.

Perhaps just having a public advocate for the arts, which we are seeing getting cut left and right from public school, even though studies routinely show the enormous benefit of music and arts education, might be enough to spark larger change.

I’ll leave you with a story from a professor from George Mason University, that my father mentioned to me recently: In the 1700s as England was shipping off inmates to Australia, routinely 1/3 of the passengers died and the majority of surviving passengers were sick or badly beaten and injured.

They tried everything, except talking to an economist. And when they finally did, the economist suggest one simple tiny change: Instead of paying shipping companies for number of passengers they took on the ship they should instead pay based on how many got off the ship. The next voyage had a 99% survival rate.

Sometimes it just takes a small carefully thought-out change to provide the impetus for a groundbreaking innovation.

Curious to hear your thoughts either on comments here, on my blog or on Twitter! (@alextorpey)

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