When UConn broke up with Adobe: A parable of artists and copyright

One of the things I try very hard to do in my DMD 2010 “History of Digital Culture” class is to teach students that their technology choices are not inevitable nor even determined primarily by what’s “best,” but rather that their technology choices are values choices, reflections of their ethical commitments and those of the communities that create and use those technologies.

When the University of Connecticut’s  UITS (University Information Technology Services) made a choice not to renew it’s Adobe Creative Cloud site license, my students correctly judged that this was a values choice about the relative importance the higher administration places on artistic work at the university. The decision not to support software for artists, while at the same time maintaining support for software for, say, engineers, is a statement about how the university values different kinds of work on campus. I was pleased that the students immediately saw that this wasn’t just a choice about the quality of the software or even its cost, but about the intellectual commitments and identity of the university. What the students didn’t so easily grasp, however, was that the controversy over the Adobe suite also reflects on the values choices of the students, on the values choices that digital artists have made over many years to put the Adobe suite and other expensive, proprietary, closed-source software packages at the center of their creative practice, which in turn stems from set of larger choices artists have made vis à vis our prevailing copyright regime.

Artists have largely chosen think about copyright a something that exists to protect them and their work, and they have generally supported our ever-stricter copyright regime. Moving from a humanities and social sciences faculty to a fine arts faculty when I came to UConn from George Mason in 2013, I was struck by how poorly my storm-the-barricades, anti-copyright, open access agenda went over with my colleagues. Not that anyone really cared, but it was apparent from the beginning that I was coming at conversations that touched upon intellectual property (for example, a conversation about making faculty syllabi freely available on the web) from one side of the fence and they were coming at them from the other.  Indeed, UConn’s School of Fine Arts offers a course on copyright for artists called Protecting the Creative Spirit: The Law and the Arts, which is taught by two lawyers. You can tell from the title of the course where its sympathies lie.

My DMD 2010 students (most of whom are freshman and sophomores studying in the department of Digital Media & Design which resides within the School of Fine Arts) are no exception. When I teach the unit on copyright, the first question I ask the class is, “What is the purpose of copyright.” Inevitably, students answer with some version of “to keep people from ripping you off.” My next move is to put the copyright clause of the Constitution up on the overhead and explain to them that, in fact, the purpose of copyright is to “Promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and that protecting an author’s exclusive rights for a limited term is simply a means to an end.

What is more, I tell them that the ever-stricter copyright regime we live with today wasn’t really designed to protect artists artists at all, although some may have used and benefited its protections. Instead, it was designed by and for big corporations, and it does a much better job of protecting those corporations than it does of protecting individual artists. It is true that many of these corporations employ artists (several former DMD 2010 students are now working for Disney), but those artists’ works are works for hire. The works may be protected by copyright law, but they are protected to the benefit of the employer, not the employee.

It is telling that the feelings of outrage and abandonment regarding the UITS Adobe announcement weren’t evenly distributed among my students. Digital Media & Design students at UConn choose from six different “concentrations,” electing to focus on either 2D animation/motion graphics; 3D animation; game design and development; web design and development; digital media business strategies; or digital culture, learning, and advocacy. (Students from all concentrations are required to take DMD 2010.) Especially hard hit by the news were the 2D/motion graphics students, for whom Adobe After Effects sits at the heart of their practice and for which there really isn’t a substitute, commercial or open source. Letting the Adobe license lapse was basically going to kill their creative practice, or, at the very least, put them out several hundred dollars.

My web design and development students, on the other hand, felt sympathy for their colleagues, but were pretty blasé about the whole thing. For them, letting the Adobe license lapse wouldn’t really change anything. The Adobe corporation has very little leverage over a web developer. To drive the point home, I challenged these web development students to think of a single piece of software that, if taken away from them, would affect their practice in any significant way. A few came up with TCP/IP, but quickly corrected themselves: TCP/IP is a protocol not a piece of software and is an open standard in any case. Apache was another, but, again, it’s open source, and there are serviceable alternatives. Certainly, they couldn’t name a corporation that exists that could raise its prices and bring their web development work to a halt in the way that Adobe was threatening to stop the work of our motion graphics artists. The difference, of course, is that our web developers rely on an open source technology stack and our motion graphics artists rely on proprietary software protected by a copyright law that was written in part by the very companies that produce it. Our web developers are not captive to copyright. Our motion graphics artists are.

Far from protecting artists, this is the best example I have of how our overly restrictive copyright regime harms artists. Rather than teaching our students how to situate their creative practice within a framework of intellectual property protection and thereby reinforce a copyright regime that wasn’t put in place for them in the first place, we should be encouraging our students to resist this regime. We should be teaching them to advocate for open access and open source software. In the longer term, we should be helping them to develop open source and open access alternatives themselves. This is an especially important message for my digital media and design students who, with their considerable skills, will be in a position to effect the longer term project of building the open source tools that will be necessary to free artists’ creative practice from propriety software. In the long term, maybe the very long term, this is the only way we can keep digital artists from being held hostage to corporations as Adobe held my students hostage this semester.

Fortunately, we’ve sorted out the Adobe license issue for now by cutting a licensing deal (shall we call it a hostage negotiation?) apart from UITS for students enrolled in the School of Fine Arts. For now, our students are safe. But only for now. You can bet I’ll be screaming this example over the fence at my colleagues in the School of Fine Arts the next time we talk about copyright.