Since before illegal music downloads were even an option, "copying" has been an essential element of creativity and innovation. From Spotify's success to the increasing profitability of YouTube content, we can see the possibilities that unlimited inspiration and audience access provide. As laws struggle to catch up in our rapidly moving digital century, we are working to let creativity flourish, protect the rights of creators, and provide viable products for consumers.

Written by
Kent Walker
April 2012

Bloggers and lawyers (and bloggers’ lawyers) are fiercely debating copyright in chat rooms and courtrooms across the world. Are laws written for an analog era stifling digital creativity? Can nothing be done about online piracy? How do we compensate creators while empowering both consumers and new generations of authors and artists? What path should we be taking through our first digital century?

First, let’s talk about what it means to create. “Creativity isn’t magic. It comes by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials,” said writer/director Kirby Ferguson on his web video series Everything is a Remix. “By connecting ideas together, creative leaps can be made, producing some of history’s biggest breakthroughs.”

Everything is a Remix catalogues instances throughout history of artists taking inspiration through derivation. Bob Dylan’s first album contained 11 covers. Thomas Edison didn’t invent the lightbulb – his first patent was for ‘improvement in electric lamps’ – he just created the first commercially viable one. And then there’s my own favorite example: Shakespeare remixed playwrights from a century earlier, and it’s nearly impossible to count the works he himself has inspired. That’s 450 years of creativity made possible by fair use and the public domain.

Digital platforms give us access to more content – the building blocks of creativity – than ever before. We have unparalleled resources to remix and build upon influences, the technology to make production easier than ever, and access to the biggest audience the world has ever seen. According to YouTube’s own statistics, 69 percent of adult internet users have streamed or downloaded video online. That’s 52 percent of the adult population of the United States.

Digital platforms are also bringing in money: Hundreds of our partners on YouTube are making over $100,000 a year, and the number of YouTube creators who are making upwards of $1,000 per day is up 300 percent since the start of 2010. We’re even seeing entirely new models of creative production, like the 101 classical musicians from 30 different countries who were selected for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra based on online audition videos. The orchestra had its inaugural performance at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2009.

There has never been a better time to be an artist or a consumer; even so, we can’t afford to sit back and get complacent. The kind of creativity you see online – in the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, or the educational videos from Khan Academy, or the inspirational TED Talks that are freely released on the web – has been made possible through legal provisions that protect and promote the progress of science and art. Google itself is valuable because fair use lets it copy and search the context of other websites. But these protections aren’t guaranteed.

The world continues to change at an exponential rate. It is certainly challenging to apply information law to technologies and media that didn’t exist when the law was written. The best way forward is through thoughtful dialogue that takes into account the needs and rights of both creators and consumers, especially as these traditional categories increasingly blur.

We also need to identify the aspects of our existing laws that allow creativity to flourish and ensure that those components stay firmly in place. When we think about copyright, we often don’t think about the balances that allow some copying in legitimate ways, which often benefits both consumers and new generations of creators. A journalist quoting a report can substantiate their article while helping that report reach a larger audience.

Music lovers copying their own CDs to the Cloud can listen to their music anywhere. A musician riffing off a previous composition can create a whole new work of art. Charles Gounod improvised a melody on top of a 137-year-old composition by Bach, ‘Prelude No. 1 in C Major’, creating the ‘Ave Maria’ we so often hear at weddings and funerals today.

When they’re given high-quality, fairly priced, easily accessible content, consumers can and will play by the rules.

An effective copyright regime breathes life into creative content online, whether in plain-text bulletin boards, Flickr, Twitter, or YouTube. These platforms need to be bolstered by information law that takes into account the rights of both consumers and creators. Laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Communications Decency Act both protect creators and ensure that there is a healthy degree of freedom of expression on the platforms that host their content, be it words or photos, videos or music. Get that balance wrong and we run the risk of unfairly suppressing the 99 percent of great content online for fear of the one percent that breaks the rules.

There’s more at stake here than abstractions. A study published by Booz & Company last year highlighted exactly how much digital creativity is contributing to our fast-changing economy. The eBook market alone is expected to hit $17 billion in 2013. The value of the digital music market in 2014 is projected to be $32.5 billion. And about 15 percent of the growth of US GDP over the past five years can be credited to the internet.

“We run the risk of unfairly suppressing the 99 percent of great content online for fear of the one percent that breaks the rules.”

As a company that makes and maintains digital platforms, it’s Google’s job to build, but it’s also our job to listen. We want to stay in tune with creators and the broader content industries, understand their needs, and partner with them to make sure we’re all optimally equipped for the digital age. And there are some great thinkers out there who are helping to move us all forward, like the people at Creative Commons, a non-profit organization that builds legal and technical tools that allow new creators to share their work with the world more easily.

The results can be illuminating. The success of streaming music service Spotify has shown that when they’re given high-quality, fairly priced, easily accessible content, consumers can and will play by the rules. A report in Spotify’s home country of Sweden last year found that the number of people downloading music illegally had dropped 25 percent since 2009.

We’re all going to have to work together on the blueprints for an information law that respects the basic tenets of copyright and benefits both creators – like the bands and artists whose videos we’re proud to host on YouTube, or the 35,000 authors and publishers we work with on Google Books – and consumers. Looking at the big picture, we aim to maintain fair use and ‘safe harbor’ regulations in the US, improve the laws we have that govern ‘orphan works’ without an obvious copyright holder, and promote this approach internationally.

That way, we’ll have the best environment possible for innovative people to make the creations they’ve always dreamed of, and the best distribution system for their work to reach the widest possible audience. We’ll be able to enjoy new forms of entertainment, information, and learning that no one – not Dylan, not Edison, not Shakespeare – could have imagined.