Public ownership or private profit?Flickr: Horia Varlan

The Green party’s copyright adjustment plans probably weren't at the forefront of everyone’s concerns during the build up to the general election. Welfare cuts? The Human Rights Act? Nah, it’s all about when we’ll be able to read the CHERUB novels again online for free. It certainly isn't a topic that many would take time to think about.

But the recent uproar over the Greens' plans to change the length of the UK copyright laws from 70 years to 14 provokes an interesting consideration of the balance between the commercial and creative elements of the arts. Members of the literary community, such as Philip Pullman, expressed discontent over the Greens' copyright proposal and stood up for their rights to authorial ownership. Whilst the Greens clearly want to make art more accessible, their policies could potentially mean making a living in the arts would become even more difficult than it already is.

I use sites that provide free access to books such as Project Gutenburg and JSTOR all of the time for my English degree, but it’s a convenience I could easily live without. Most of us don’t have a problem with finding the books we need. We are incredibly fortunate to have a University Library that is so big you can literally get lost in it- I hate that place. Our privilege can perhaps make it difficult to appreciate how much of a luxury our books actually are. Just look up some of their prices and you can appreciate the Green party’s desire to render books more accessible.

Most people agree that art and culture are pillars of a healthy society. When so much power and money lies in the hands of so few, it is necessary to make sure that access to culture is not equally as exclusive. We want to make the arts affordable and accessible to all, but where does that leave the artists? How do we find the balance between providing the authors their livelihood and allowing everyone in society access to cultural enrichment?

Jessica Elgot of The Guardian quotes Kate Pool, deputy chief executive of the Society of Authors, who said that with the Green’s plans artists and writers would lose out, “with more money being made by manufacturers or distributors”. This would effectively be counter-productive for a party which aims to create a more equal distribution of wealth in British society. Let’s not forget the fundamental problem with ending a copyright- it essentially takes away the author’s ownership of his or her own work. This in itself can be seen as very unfair, imagine dedicating years to your magnum opus, only to have it belong to you for a limited amount of time. Is it fair for intellectual property to be time sensitive?

Not only have the Green party failed to fully consider the negative consequences of their policy on one of the most vulnerable professions in society, but the members of the party have not even reached a clear understanding amongst themselves about the details of the copyright policy. According to the Telegraph, Caroline Lucas said in a blog post, " I understand it that's 14 years after the creator dies, not 14 years from the point at which their work is first copyrighted." However, another spokesman for the party told the Telegraph that the copyright term they were suggesting "would be 14 years after publishing, as recommended by Cambridge University researcher Rufus Pollock." The Greens are revered among many for their optimistic policies, yet their electoral credibility is often lacking due to instances like these.

The Green party’s good intentions could, in a sense, end up stripping authors of their creative freedoms. The Obscene Act was legislated in 1857 and gave the courts power to seize and destroy books with offensive material, such as blasphemy or sexual content. An updated version of the same law brought Penguin Books to trial in 1960 for publishing D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover due to its explicit sexual content. Whilst this law was clearly an aggressive violation of authorial freedom, we must consider how the Green party’s law acts in a similar, albeit subtler manner.

Whilst today's artists aren’t bound to conform to the court’s decision of what is ‘proper’, they, like the rest of society, are tethered to the realities of the commercial world. They, like anyone else, need to earn a living. To put things in perspective, a book sold for £10 will typically give 40-60p in royalties to the author. This is in a best-case scenario. The average annual income for a professional author is estimated at a mere £11,000, 29% down from 2005.

By significantly reducing the length of time that their books can generate an income, which is already very slight, Green’s plans effectively restrict authorial freedom. Put simply, authors are no longer as free to write for a living if they can’t afford to live, and the creation of art is further restricted to a small subset of the population able to support themselves through other means.

All this may seem a bit dramatic, but there is a commercial underbelly to the creative, and this must be respected. Take off the rose-tinted glasses of “art should be free for all” and you can see the people who produce the art and are often struggling to make ends meet. Perhaps shifting their focus to funding more public libraries and supporting access to literature in British schools would enable the Green party to cater to both the creators and consumers of art.