Cultural Production and its Discontents: Copyright, Commerce, and Invisible Labor

By alisonmacdonald

In Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy Robert McChesney (2013), Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, broadly characterizes copyright in the internet age as a tool used by media conglomerates to gain monopolistic control of digital channels of dissemination of cultural products. He describes the political machinations of the “copyright lobby” on behalf of the corporate media sector as, largely, an infringement of the “openness and egalitarianism” the internet initially promised, and consequently an assault on its potential to contribute to democratic culture and self-government (p. 124-125).

McChesney’s critique of corporate media’s use of copyright brings up the work of two other scholars: The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler (2006) and “Critical information studies: a bibliographic manifesto” by Siva Vaidhyanathan (2005) which appeared in the journal Cultural Studies. In those works, both scholars identify the emergence of internet age information and communications technology as ushering in revolutionary possibilities for cultural conversation and production. Both emphasize the radical possibilities for creative collaboration that internet channels provide, and both identify implementation and expansion of copyright laws in the United States by entrenched media interests as serious challenges to realizing the full creative potential of those channels. Furthermore, like McChesney, both scholars link effective use and regulation of new information technologies to the responsible expansion of democracy.

Noticeably absent from all three scholars’ works is a substantive treatment of the principle of economic gain for individual authors as a vehicle for public benefit that, at least expressly, underlies copyright in the United States. In Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for Digitization for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums, authors Peter Hirtle, Emily Hudson, and Andrew Kenyon (2009) quote the Supreme Court’s explanation:

The economic philosophy behind the clause empowering Congress to grant patents and copyrights is the conviction that encouragement of individual effort by personal gain is the best way to advance the public welfare through the talents of authors and inventors in “Science and useful Arts” (p. 4).

It is clear that media conglomerates use and manipulate copyright through political pressure to consolidate their economic domination. It is also clear that such companies, like other corporate players in cultural production, negotiate through contracts and employment conditions with the individual actors who create, collaboratively or alone, the cultural products those companies offer to the marketplace and over which they claim and, legally, hold ownership. McChesney, Benkler, and Vaidhyanathan decry the oppressive and self-interested actions of those companies and their effect on the potential for unfettered creative work and innovation for the public good. But in the internet of “openness and egalitarianism” towards which those scholars write, would individual creators be adequately financially rewarded for their labor and thus incentivized to pursue creative work?

Initial indications are that a society and its financially interested parties that emphasize freely accessible information over the rights of copyright holders tend to deliberately obscure the labor of individual creative workers and thus rationalize those workers’ lack of economic gain from the cultural products they create. This is evidentially the case in the internet age, when individuals are encouraged to donate their labor to cultural projects, and are contracted by hour or by task by companies that use them as tools rather than employees. The issue is exacerbated by the invisibility of individual labor when rendered in digital form. As James Moor (1985), Daniel P. Stone Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy at Dartmouth College, wrote in “What is computer ethics?” in the journal Metaphilosophy, “Most of the time and under most conditions computer operations are invisible. One may be quite knowledgeable about the inputs and outputs of a computer and only dimly aware of the internal processing” (p. 6). The invisibility of computer operations also obscures the human labor involved in digital products. Creative cultural products rendered and disseminated digitally appear more and more like public goods, and less and less like individual creations. The October 2015 ruling in Google’s favor by the New York federal appeals court vis-a-vis Google Books and Google Book Search, while reasonable, does not treat the disrespect of copyright undoubtedly shown by Google when it digitized entire libraries of books under copyright, nor does it have any bearing on the company’s prospective future plans for the full scans of those books which it still holds. It seems that Google may be able to take the resources it wants regardless of legal ownership or procedure, and fight to a favorable resolution while counting legal fees as simply a cost of doing business.

Benkler (2006) warns that “The freedom of action for individuals who wish to produce information, knowledge, and culture is being systematically curtailed in order to secure the economic returns demanded by the manufacturers of the industrial information economy” (p. 16-17). But is a culture that denies the financial rewards due to individual authors by ignoring existing copyright likely to effectively advance the kind of collaborative creativity Benkler, McChesney, and Vaidhyanathan desire? The artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier has, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, written of the “impenetrable tone deafness [that] rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship” (Kakutani, 2010). The problem is exacerbated by the easy international dissemination of digital cultural products and the consequent clashes between U.S. and other countries’ copyright laws, as illustrated by the recent kerfuffle over recreation of Marcel Duchamp’s chess set. As Library of Congress general reference librarian Thomas Mann (2015) has pointed out, the only alternative to copyright restrictions appears to be “government-regulated control of information,” which carries problems of funding and coercion, so copyright will continue to obtain. It is to be hoped that the rights of visible and invisible individual cultural producers will be respected, as “Changes in technology do not produce changes…in the need to make a living” (p. 134-135).



Benkler, Y. (2006). “Introduction: a moment of opportunity and challenge” in The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Yale University Press, 1–18.

Cohen, D. (2015, October 22). What the Google books victory means for readers. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Hiltzik, M. (2015, October 20). Copyright boon or bane? Google Books survives another legal challenge. Lost Angeles Times. Retrieved from

Hirtle, P. B., Hudson, E. & Kenyon, A. T. (2009) Copyright and Cultural Institutions: Guidelines for Digitization for U.S. Libraries, Archives, and Museums. Cornell University Library.

Kakutani, M. (2010, January 14). A rebel in cyberspace, fighting collectivism (Review of the book You Are Not a Gadget). The New York Times. Retrieved from

Mann, T. (2015) The Oxford guide to library research. 4th ed. Oxford University Press.

McChesney, R. (2013). Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. New Press. Chapters 3–5.

Moor, J. H. (1985). “What is computer ethics?” Metaphilosophy 16(4): 266–275.

Norton, Q. (2015, September 8). The international fight over Marcel Duchamp’s chess set. The Atlantic. Retrieved from

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2005). “Critical information studies: a bibliographic manifesto.” Cultural Studies 20(2/3): 292–315.


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