eipcp Policies
12 2011

Beyond Copyright

The Demise of the Fordist Cultural Industries

Translated by Erika Doucette

Felix Stalder

Felix Stalder


Erika Doucette (translation)




The copyright crisis, which we experience in countless episodes everyday, is , to a large degree, nothing more than the crisis of the Fordist model of production within the cultural industries. This crisis is however more dramatic here than in other sectors, for because nowhere else has this model been so formative in shaping the identity of middle-class society, is so deeply entrenched in their social institutions, or goes so far back. Namely to 1452. The printing press was a Fordist machine avant la lettre in the sense that it allowed for artifacts to be produced through capital- and technology-intensive processes based on the division of labor and in large quantities for supra-regional markets.

The Fordist model emerges

For authors, the new model meant they could free themselves from the feudal dependency on aristocratic or clerical dignitaries. They no longer had to dedicate their work to their patrons’ glory and honor. Instead, they could produce for the expanding literature and science markets, organized by the publishers. The authors gained autonomy in many respects, for not only were the publishers in competition with each other, which expanded the authors’ range of action, but all those participating in these markets—authors, publishers and readers—were initially from the same social class—the emergent middle class—making them “natural allies” in many controversies. This was also the case with copyright, as its emergence is closely linked to extending the markets for literary production. However, a closer look reveals that copyright was closely linked to the publisher’s perspective from the start. The first modern law, the British Statute of Anne from 1710, represented the publishers’ interest in being liberated from the authoritarian state printing monopolies that could grant and just as easily withdraw the privilege to publish. They were replaced by monopolies on author’s intellectual property, which in practice had to be contractually transferred to the publishers in order to be published. The continental European droit dauteur tradition, which focuses on the inherent rights of the author, also has its roots in publishing. After all, Denis Diderot’s famous argument that the relationship between the authors and their works is more intimate than any other form of ownership, because the work basically represents a part of the author’s personality, comes from the Letter on the Book Trade (1763), which he wrote on behalf of the Parisian book guild. There is a certain irony to the fact that when the letter was first published in a mutilated form and under the name of a publisher without any indication of Diderot’s authorship. Nevertheless, despite the many tensions among them, the interests of the authors, the publishers and the audience were nonetheless quite closely related. They were central actors within the bourgeois-democratic public. Copyright allowed the publishers to have the relevant rights be transferred to them and simultaneously to protect themselves from the competition, often by obtaining a monopoly on utilization rights. The authors could contractually secure shares of the publishers’ revenue. For the emerging urban audience, it ensured a steady supply of books tailored to their needs and cultural preferences. At the same time, the quotation rights included in copyright allowed the essentially cumulative character of creative work to be maintained within literary and scientific practice, even if it was ideologically obscured by the cult of the genius and the myth of the inventor.

and  expands

This model, which essentially characterized the literary market since the 18th century, was transferred to other cultural sector, as soon as they had the technological possibility to manufacture reproductions of works in large quantities. However, this knowledge that creative work is in fact cumulative, continued to recede further into the background. No other sector offers the possibility to work so freely with material that is not one’s own than the text sector, as quotation rights remained, by and large, within a literary logic.

As long as media were analogue, in practice, this “misconception” was only a marginal problem, because their materiality made it difficult to work directly with the reproduced works, and where this did occur (e.g. as in collages), the copyright holders saw no reason to take legal measures. Beyond this, the population and their cultural production remained untouched by copyright in their daily life, as they were not at all geared towards reproducing work in large quantities. Accordingly, it was relegated to the private sphere that within the bourgeois social order was deemed a non-productive and thus economically irrelevant area.

Since digitalization, this setting, which worked relatively well for a very long time, has been coming apart at the seams. Fordism is drawing to an end in the cultural industries as well. A field of deep-seated social conflicts is arising, which is not only concerned with an economic crisis, but also with an identity crisis for the middle-class public. Cultural politics has suddenly become relevant again.

Struggles for the new cultural industries

The conservative-reactionary strategy in the conflicts can be summarized something like this: the easier it is to produce a copy and make it accessible, the harsher the means of legal redress to prohibit it. This strategy’s first major triumph was the WIPO Copyright Treaty (1996), establishing the protection of digital copy protection in international law. Since its enactment, it has become illegal to bypass the copy protection that copyright holders place on a digital product, even if the intended use (e.g. making a private copy) was still legal. These rights had been de facto privatized. The copyright holder was now able to determine in great detail what a user could do with the digital work. Existing restrictions copyright were to be lifted through the back door—in practice, however, this is not what happened. Copying and unauthorized use not only continued, but exploded. What followed was a long list of further copyright restrictions, all of which were based on the same idea: the more powerful the individual communication technologies became, the more extensive the restrictions on this particular communication had to be—due to the fact that copyright infringement could happen at any time and place and once this was done outside a realm that could be controlled there is hardly any way to recover digital copies. The fact that this results in enormous collateral damage to the protection of the private sphere, the freedom of speech, art and communication, remained outside the focus of cultural industry lobby groups, most likely because within a Fordist model, consumers don’t need to have these rights, as they are viewed as passive consumers and not active participants within a communication cycle.

The Europe-wide demonstrations in February 2012 against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) show that the social legitimation of the Fordist model of cultural industries is diminishing and that particularly the “consumers” are now refusing to accept the passive role they are ascribed within this model. If anything, public communication, and the producing and distributing of cultural work have become integral to their daily activities and how they define themselves. In other words, the end of the Fordist model has clearly extended the scope of action for a majority of the population and new roles are constantly emerging, situated somewhere between old-school authors and passive consumers. Each intervention in the possibilities of public communication, which must be restricted in order to maintain the old model, is viewed as a direct intervention in the new possibilities for shaping one’s own way of life and is thus met with strong rejection. The consumers have left the Fordist model behind and are developing new identities beyond the division of public and private communication. There is no looking back.

The situation is also relatively clear for the cultural industries, where the former industries—the publishers, labels, distributors, etc.—are defending themselves against being replaced by the new actors of Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. Copyright is the central weapon in this struggle. Using it, they are attempting to keep the new cultural industries from moving forward, or at least to increase the price of their likely buy-out.

The most contradictory aspect is the role of professional artists. On the one hand, the models in place hardly offer a realistic chance for any of them to earn a fair income – the precarization of the cultural sector is well advanced. And it’s not bound to improve anytime soon because the cultural field, which is still organized according to Fordist principles, continues to grow smaller and the logic of large quantities is more forcefully implemented. More and more money is being invested in less and less stars and former niches are disappearing. On the other hand, there is great skepticism in regards to becoming dependent on new managers who control their markets through quasi monopolies, and brutally exploit their power on the market. Within this situation, many artists prefer not to comment on this conflict.

New social economies?

Yet, the unappealing alternative between cultural industry 1.0 and cultural industry 2.0 is a sham. A third model is taking shape before our very eyes: a new social economy in the cultural field, where the relationship between producers and recipients is flexible and cooperative. Social, cultural and economic dimensions are linked with one another in new ways instead of remaining strictly separated. The audience is empowered to express their recognition for the artists’ achievements not only by paying at the register and by the applause in the presence of the artists, but rather by being involved in different production-related activities, even if it is only participating in the advance financing of a new work via crowd-funding. However, this calls for a change in mindset on the part of the artists and a change in their relationship with the audience. While the emergence of the Fordist model enabled the artists to liberate themselves from the personal, hierarchical dependency on feudal art patronage and to enter into a form of abstract, market-mediated equality with their audience, the current situation holds the potential to liberate themselves from the abstract equality of the market and to enter into a  personal and potentially equal relationship with the audience. This challenge, which reaches far beyond the cultural field in the narrower sense is certainly not easy, yet it is extremely promising.