By Ruth Vitale

“To take from an artist is to take greatness from this world.”

So says Matthew Cuban in the following video from a group of Los Angeles street poets about copyright and its importance to creativity and innovation in America. We are thrilled to partner with Macmillan Learning and a group of Los Angeles-based street poets to create this inspiring project, which recently debuted on their LaunchPad for Media Essentials, Fifth Edition. We hope its message will resonate with faculty and students alike as they create, research, cite, and consume content across the digital world. But if you’re not a student or professor who uses the Macmillan Learning Launchpad portal, we still hope you can appreciate the video and the resources that come with it. 

A bit of background about this project: My name is Ruth Vitale and I run CreativeFuture. I started this advocacy organization almost seven years ago because I have worked with creative people my entire professional life (first-time filmmakers, musicians, artists, writers, etc.) and know that what they do takes enormous effort, talent, and love. As I watched the digital landscape change around us, I could foresee a world in the very near future when they would be unable to make a living.

Why, you might ask? 

It all comes down to the dawn of the internet and the explosion of global piracy that has directly impacted our creative communities’ ability to earn a living. Here are two things I know for certain: first, most people think that piracy is a victimless crime or, at the very least, a crime only against very wealthy individuals or corporations. And, the second thing I know just as certainly: the people who are truly hurt by piracy are the millions of Americans who work in the creative industries who are not rich and rely upon their paychecks to afford the basics – things like feeding their families and paying rent.

In 2008, the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA) mandated that colleges take meaningful action to curb piracy over their campus networks. One of the requirements of the Bill is an annual disclosure to students describing copyright law and how violating it goes against federal law and campus policies. Every school must provide all incoming students with these materials. Unfortunately, this important message tends to get wrapped up in a lot of legal language that does little but scare or repel students and faculty, while failing to convey why anyone should care about copyright other than being caught.

That’s where CreativeFuture’s collaboration with Macmillan Learning comes in. We partnered to ensure that this message will not be a boring legal letter, but instead a positive message that can inspire students to do better in their daily life online. The LaunchPad for Media Essentials will now give teachers the ability to easily distribute this video to all of their students. And, hopefully, that will spark the type of conversation that changes attitudes and opinions in the next generation of creators and consumers. And now, through our website, we hope even more people are able to see this video. 

If we can only cut through the legalese, we can show students and professors (and everyone else) that copyright is a creative right afforded to all Americans, a legal structure that helps creative people to be compensated for their work. Without it, there would be no marketplace for creativity – just creative people and their hobbies.

As I said, copyright infringement doesn’t just hurt big companies and their profits, it prevents creative individuals from making a living. And, while that one stream or download may feel like a victimless crime, there are billions of people around the globe thinking and doing the same thing. Piracy isn’t victimless. In fact, the piracy ecosystem threatens the livelihoods of people everywhere.

With this new video, Macmillan and CreativeFuture have set out to create a resource that explains, in a compelling and engaging fashion, why copyright matters personally and why it’s worth protecting.

The street poets who appear in this video are Angelena Aguilera, Aman Batra, Matthew Cuban, Kito Fortune, Tonya Ingram, and Alyesha Wise. They represent the types of individuals that the copyright system is designed to protect. These Los Angeles-based performers are passionate, hardworking creators doing what they love. As you will hear in the video, they sell “CDs and chapbooks out of the trunks of their cars” – and a $10 purchase of one of their works can mean the difference between “feast and famine.” This video is a window into their lives, showing us how they make a living.

For artists like these, even a small act of copyright infringement can affect their ability to pay even basic expenses, let alone pursue their craft as a viable profession. And yet, despite the basic obligation of federal law to educate students about copyright infringement, piracy on college campuses is more the norm than the exception.

For most students, learning about something as nuanced as copyright is about the last thing on their list of priorities when going to college. What’s more, many have little disposable income, making piracy an appealing alternative. Add to that a culture in which creative content online has been devalued by the prevalence of free, and it is no wonder that copyright infringement is an everyday occurrence.

With the rise of streaming on the internet, piracy has become easier than ever. For many young people born and raised in this environment, it has become merely an expectation, not a violation.

We can hardly blame students for this mindset. But the result has been an entire generation of young people who have grown accustomed to everything being available for free online, without any real sense why that’s anything but a good thing. We hope our video can convince people that, in fact, this culture of free has serious ramifications. Copyright safeguards the original works of writers, musicians, filmmakers, software and gaming developers, and other innovators whose collective contributions keep our country strong and competitive and our culture fascinating and diverse.

This is what led the U.S. Supreme Court to single out copyright as “an engine of free expression.” What could be more important than protecting the vibrant creative industries that not only entertain, inspire, and provoke us, but that export our democratic ideals around the world and often reflect the best of America?

Indeed, copyright is more than the fuel of a mighty cultural engine – it is the foundation of one of our economy’s most essential pillars. The core copyright industries (film, television, music, radio, books, photography, newspapers, and software in all formats) collectively added an estimated $1.3 trillion to the U.S. GDP in 2017 – or 6.85% of its total value.

Not surprisingly, revenues of that magnitude generate a massive number of jobs – jobs that many students may one day have. Core copyright industries employed over 5.7 million people in 2017, while total copyright industries employed nearly 11.6 million workers. Piracy causes massive harm to these individuals and companies. In some cases, such as the music industry during the era of Napster, it can become an existential threat.

So, it has become more important than ever to educate people about the importance of copyright and the harms that occur when our culture minimizes it. By putting a fresh and real spin on this urgent yet frequently sobering topic, we hope that our video will, if even just for a moment, snap people out of the overwhelming clamor of daily life and allow them to spend a moment thinking about how their infringement might affect the lives of real people.

We hope that educators across the country will use our video in their classrooms, regardless of how directly copyright seems to impact their coursework. If they teach a creative subject, or a subject that might lead someone toward a creative career, this video and the accompanying materials are essential. But, even in a field that seems unrelated, it is always important to remind our next generation of professionals, creative or otherwise, that copyright law has allowed American creativity to be a beacon of hope around the world.

All of us should be setting an example for the next generation of how to use the internet responsibly. We are pleased to offer this one small yet impactful opportunity to do so. We only ask that, at a minimum, you devote a moment or two of your valuable time to watch this compelling video resource. That, at the very least, “you think,” as the poets implore, “before stealing from [their] plate.”

Learn more about our Youth Outreach initiative on our K-12 and University resource pages.