But that’s indeed what the author of Prozac Nation has done with Creatocracy: How the Constitution Invented Hollywood. Through a breezy 121 pages from Thought Catalog Books, Wurtzel provides an interesting and provocative defense of authors’ exclusive rights and commercial culture.
Creatocracy unabashedly embraces American exceptionalism, describing the country as “one big huge accident” that nevertheless “was always cool.” Wurtzel writes,
The defining characteristic of America is our fanaticism: We dream big, we think large, we create granderu. We invented Hollywood, rock ‘n’ roll, blue jeans, the Gold Rush, cable TV with thousands of channels, a military that is larger than those of the next ten combined, the shopping mall, and a store that sells nothing but socks.
Against this backdrop, Wurtzel takes us to the beginning of the American republic to look at the development of copyright. And her thesis is this: the Founders chose to encourage art, science, and knowledge through the marketplace—rather than government subsidy or patronage—and this choice has proven successful, creating a vibrant commercial culture.
In establishing at the outset that all creative people would be at the mercy of the marketplace, the Framers invented a uniquely American form of creativity, which is commercial, widely appealing, and inevitably the stuff of empires. The Constitution is the force behind Hollywood and Silicon Valley, behind rock stars and rocket scientists, behind everything we love and everything we love to hate.
Wurtzel traces the path by which the Constitution established Congress’s authority to promote art and science through copyright. I was initially skeptical when I saw she would be taking us through history—much intellectual property (IP) scholarship has trouble with history. But Wurtzel’s recount of the history is adept. At the same time, she shows a canny ability of anticipating and responding to common criticisms of IP in academia. For example, she devotes one chapter to the IP views of Thomas Jefferson, who is often put forward as an arbiter of IP minimalism. But as Wurtzel notes, Jefferson’s views were far more nuanced than such proponents allow, and regardless, he had little to do with the shaping of the federal IP power.
When not recounting us with history, Wurtzel celebrates talent and pop culture, describing the mass market of culture enabled by copyright as producing “the most commercially inventive and artistic country ever.” Peppered throughout are observations about the nature of the creative process, no doubt drawn from Wurtzel’s own experience.
It has always been difficult to be a successful creative person, because talent is rare, but the rewards were good. They had to be. Consider how boring most people are. Consider how often you sit and talk to someone and wish you could leave because he is not interesting at all. Then think about a book you can’t put down and hope will never end: The author is not even in the room and is only holding your attention with words on a page, but he has you trapped and you don’t want to ever escape. Most people, using everything they have in real life, cannot take hold of you the way a talented writer can without even being there. Talent is the ability to mesmerize people when you are nowhere near. Talent is the ability to make something that is more stunning than human presence.
Wurtzel centers in on the market as an essential element in translating such talent into great works. In chapter 13, she writes that “The greatest of the great American art forms have been done in factory settings, with profit in mind.
[S]ongs written by teams in rows of rooms in the Brill Building or in cubicles in the Motown studios are as emotionally resonant and haunting as the dark part of the night when the sky is big and there are no stars, no moon, and all is terrifying. Talented people do not need atmosphere to work. They do not need inspiration. They just need time and payment. They need to treat what they do like a job. They need to show up. Writing the Great American Novel has more in common with coal mining than it does with keeping a journal—it is hard labor, long and intense.
The commercial creativity enabled by copyright is indeed successful, both economically and culturally. And it is not all pop songs and Transformer films, because of one of the benefits that emerges from successful creative industries: the subsidization of riskier, more challenging work.
To give one example: actress Kristen Stewart is best known for her role in the blockbuster Twilight films. She most recently starred in the decidedly non-blockbuster film Clouds of Sils Maria. Glenn Kenny of Rogerebert.com says of the role:
The young actor, who catapulted to worldwide fame in the “Twilight” series, has, like her co-star Robert Pattinson, been using the clout that such stardom brings to effectively branch out as a performer. In the contemporary movie business, the transaction works both ways: big young star stretches creative muscles by signing on to challenging, filmmaker-driven projects; challenging, filmmaker-driven projects get their financing because a young star who wants to stretch his or her creative muscles has signed on to it.
It is true that patronage or government subsidy can also fund challenging and artistically relevant projects, but nothing like on the scale that the market could provide.
Creatocracy is not perfect. Wurtzel meanders from the main point at times. These diversions are meaningful, don’t get me wrong, but with such a short book, they could stand to be more tightly edited perhaps.
But overall, it is an interesting and compelling defense of copyright from a perspective not typically seen in academic or policy circles. The result is a book that should appeal especially to lay audiences. You may not necessarily agree with absolutely everything Wurtzel says (I didn’t), but it an absolute delight to hear her say it.