Loreena McKennitt’s argument from authority

I’m in the home stretch of finishing a first draft of my dissertation – today I have to cut half of my closely argued, heavily cited justification for using historical institutionalism to theorize regional integration – so I don’t have a lot of time to spend on this. But I feel the need to weigh in on the Loreena McKennitt’s pro-copyright-reform op-ed that’s doing the rounds.

Geist and McOrmond have already addressed the substance of McKennitt’s argument. But what’s surprising is that there is so little to address. We have McKennitt, an accomplished musician, arguing that the Internet has made it harder for musicians to make a living, that the Internet is hurting industries that are dependent on the music industry, and that therefore we need copyright reform.

I’ve always been struck by the degree to which the copyright debate is driven by polemics, rather than empiricism, and McKennitt’s article does little to break this trend. The big hint that this is a polemic comes at the end, where McKennitt says that she welcomes “copyright reform legislation” without even talking about what, exactly, in Bill C-32 – the actual copyright reform legislation before Parliament – would support a “thriving creative environment where artists are paid and the communities where they live and work reap the rewards” (which sounds good to me).

No matter where you stand on copyright, it should be obvious to anyone that not all copyright laws are created equal. There is a difference between “copyright reform legislation” and “good copyright reform legislation,” even if “good” is in the eye of the beholder.

Yet McKennitt doesn’t tell the reader why (or even if) she likes this particular bill. Rather than engaging with critics on its substance, she relies exclusively on an argument from authority to dismiss “activists and academics” as using “crafted language” to attack artists with “so-called ‘user rights’.” Shades of James Moore’s “radical extremists” comment, and equally as helpful for Canadians wanting a substantive policy debate.

It also doesn’t help that McKennitt seems to be asking of copyright more than it can give. Copyright is supposed to maximize a) the creation; and b) the distribution of creative works. Because creative works are made from already-existing creative works, we have to ensure that copyright is not so restrictive as to limit future production. That’s it.

Justifying stronger copyright based on the wellbeing of popcorn sellers, HMV employees, “parts of the touring industry” and even artists’ quality of life (ask a garbage collector if their salary or hours are fair) serves only to confuse the issue. These activities matter to copyright only to the extent that they fulfill the end of maximizing the creation and distribution of creative works. If they do, then tell us why copyright is the best way to ensure that, say, sound engineers, get paid.

If these activities can be replaced without hindering creation or distribution (seriously: popcorn vendors?), then tell us why we should care. If they are valued for other reasons, then we can lobby our government to provide other means of support. The cultural industries are supported by much, much more than just copyright law.

I have no doubt that Ms. McKennitt is sincere in her views on the importance of copyright to both her livelihood and music production. But she’s not doing anyone, especially herself, any favours by not discussing the particulars of copyright law. As I’ve said before, make your case for particular changes. Show us how particular reforms will help improve the creation and distribution of creative works. Tell us why you think specific critiques of the bill are wrong.

But, please, don’t engage in ad hominem attacks while refusing to engage on the substance of the issue. As my favourite blogger, Ta-Nehisi Coates, put it yesterday:

Overheated invective offers your adversaries a way out. You may have the superior argument, but a string of ad hominem allows your opponents to change the subject, and reduces you in his or her eyes, and in the eyes of your unswayed audience.

This style of argument betrays a disrespect for people (including other musicians!) who happen to disagree with you, while giving your critics an excuse to dismiss your arguments entirely. If would be nice if the copyright debate could move beyond it.

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