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What's the role of creativity in the digital age?

by Kim Willams AM

How we can sustain and nurture Australian stories is an important question at a time when we are seeing profound changes in digital technology and the way in which people make, distribute and consume text, music, video and other art forms.

It is worth asking: in the face of such significant changes, where it can appear that the algorithms are about to take over all manner of discovery and exchange, what is the role for human creativity. What is the role of storytelling? And importantly, how do storytellers prosper? The answer is relatively simple. Storytelling remains fundamental. Let me illustrate what I mean with, well, a story.

 On October 15, 1958 the famous CBS news correspondent, Edward Murrow rose to speak at the Radio-Television News Directors Association Convention in Chicago.

Ed Murrow, as I am sure many of you know, had been, in a highly principled and brave way, standing up to threats and intimidation from Senator Joseph McCarthy. He was resisting McCarthy’s attempt to intimidate, silence and destroy people he did not agree with, or frankly simply disliked. His accomplice in that process was of course Richard Milhous Nixon.

On that day in October 1958 Murrow said of television:

"This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box...."

In this speech, he was challenging his industry colleagues to use television for its best purposes. He was a noble and remarkably brave figure in the history of the media - you may recall the film from 2005 Good Night and Good Luck which was made as a tribute to him by George Clooney.

I think what Murrow was saying was that the then-new medium of television - for all its extraordinary infrastructure of broadcast facilities, transmission towers, and television sets - was truly useless without human stories, in all of their guises, to bring it to life. To give it purpose.

It is the same with digital technology, at least in the cultural space.

Without the storytelling skills of people like Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb at the ABC, Hedley Thomas at The Australian, or Fairfax's Tory Maguire, all of whom make enthralling and popular podcasts, a podcast would be nothing but lights and coloured icons on a screen.

Similarly, without the input of the musical scores of great composers like Bach, or Mozart or Sculthorpe, or Bowie or Lady Gaga, AI that can write music is nothing but useless algorithms and fallow computer processing power. The technology is amazing, but it needs creative impetus and originality to truly work.

Which brings me to copyright.

If creativity is fundamental in the new economy, copyright is fundamental to ensuring creators control the terms and conditions for the use of their work. It's fundamental to ensuring they get paid for it.

It's fundamental to the economic model that allows companies to invest and employ people to produce great content.

But in recent years the rights of creators have been under siege on a wide-range of fronts.

Piracy.

Tech companies who want to freeride off others creativity.

Academic ideologues who think content can be produced without a supportive economic model.

And the rise of a kind of technological determinism that says, "Hey dude the algorithm wants your story, we are taking it for nothing to feed the algorithm".

But these things are not predetermined. It is up to us to stand up for the rights of creators, and the economic model that helps sustain them.

It is up to us to say, 'No you cannot just take that'.

It is up to us to make sure that our laws are modernised in ways that respect creators and enable the extraordinary innovation inherent in digital to continue.

I am heartened that policy makers in Canberra appear to have heard that it is critical, when making necessary modernisations of the copyright regime, to ensure that the rights of creators are respected, so that they can keep producing great Australian content.

And never has Australian creativity been under greater threat from immensely powerful forces which are inherently indifferent to its good fortune.

The Government is in the process of looking at ways the copyright regime can be modernised. It is vital we remain ever vigilant. But the Government does appear to have moved away from ideas of adopting extreme changes to our Copyright Act that some have thoughtlessly advocated.

This is most welcome.

Speech by Kim Williams AM, Chair of the Copyright Agency on 28 November, 2018

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