“The time is always right to do what is right.”
MLK, Oberlin College Commencement speech, 1965
by Neil Turkewitz
On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., I wanted to honor and reflect his passion for achieving economic justice and empowerment as a predicate for achieving social justice. MLK is generally remembered as a civil rights leader, but his vision of civil rights was completely intertwined with his drive to expand economic opportunity. That freedom of the spirit was incompatible with lack of economic opportunity. Less than a week before he was killed in Memphis, he gave a speech at the National Cathedral entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” in which he contrasted lack of economic opportunity with the founding principles of our Nation. He said:
“We read one day, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”
The issues of economic opportunity and justice have ramifications in the arena of intellectual property — a relationship nicely captured by Bankole Sodipo, a founding member of the Africa IP Group (AIPG) and professor of law at Babcock University in Nigeria. At a regional workshop held in Dar es Salaam some years ago, he said “More than ever, Africans whether living on Africa soil or in the Diaspora need to network to nurture our intellectual property. We need to share experiences, to evaluate and consider how we can promote our culture, our creative industries, our innovation and our investments and ensure that intellectual property becomes a tool for African economic emancipation.”
Copyright as a tool for economic emancipation is not something that one hears everyday, and it assuredly needs more exposure. To advance the interests of societies around the globe, it is essential that we generate a greater understanding of the role of intellectual property as a tool for economic emancipation, a catalyst for cultural diversity, and a powerful protector of individual dignity and fundamental human rights.
I noted this relationship in comments I submitted to the United Nations Special Rapporteur in 2014:
“An effective and functional copyright environment is not a panacea; it does not on its own create global parity in the marketplace of ideas. But it does give individual creators a fighting chance, and an opportunity to compete. The ability to generate revenue from one’s creativity — to earn a living as a creator — is central to a society’s ability to foster cultural production. In its absence, dreams and creative lives perish. The moral and economic aspects of this equation are inseparable. We simply must ensure that all creators, regardless of their location, are able to enjoy the fundamental human right to choose the manner in which their creations are used as reflected in international law.
It is essential that policy makers remember that systems of copyright replaced private patronage as the mechanism for permitting creators to live through their craft. It does not serve the aspirations of developing societies to return to a system in which the voices of the people serve the whims of the private elite, or worse, to allow governments to be the sole determining body in the matter of cultural works. By permitting creative genius to be fueled by market forces, we unleash the cultural power and potential of the diversity of individuals, freeing creative impulses from the tyranny of centralized controls and making creative works accessible to the public at large. While copyright may be inadequate on its own in creating fair market conditions, it remains by far the most powerful tool for fostering creativity and democratizing culture itself.
It is also critical that we create a greater awareness that copyright is, after all, about the protection of the individual and the creator’s personality. Copyright protection, while it may sometimes serve the interests of multinational corporations, is the mechanism that permits individuals to devote their lives to the creation of original materials; it serves as a catalyst for the preservation and growth of cultural identity. Societal understanding of this more complete and complicated picture of the objectives and functioning of the copyright system is critical for ensuring that policy decisions derive from reason rather than rhetoric, and that the public enjoys a greater appreciation for a dynamic that is not immediately discernible from the outside.
While a superstar in Los Angeles and a struggling musician in Harare may lead very different lives, their creative existences stem from the same source — the robustness of the copyright protection that permits them to make a living from their craft. If we want to foster cultural diversity (and I assume we all do), and want to ensure that diverse content is available to be accessed (and I assume we all do), then we must be more vigilant in ensuring the effective global protection of copyright.”
It is important in today’s debates to bear in mind that we will not effectively promote “creativity” as an abstraction if we fail to protect creators. And protecting creators provides a form of economic emancipation that is literally indistinguishable from the pursuit of happiness.