Imagine there’s no copyright

I’ve been a musician and composer for nearly 50 years and always been aware of, and in favour of, copyright. It means I can decide how my music and lyrics are used. Since 1995, given the ease of copying material online, there has been a new debate about the nature, purpose and flaws of the copyright system. I follow this debate closely and study a lot of UK and USA legislation.

In the past couple of weeks (when I got involved in this particular conversation) I’ve been thinking about a world without copyright. Those involved in the discussion range from artists wondering how best to use the Internet, to free-culture fundamentalists who demand you agree with them before they even talk about their reasoning.

Fundamentalists are confused between copyrights and licenses. Copyright is set down in national law and different in each country. Licenses—such as Creative Commons, soundtrack sync, a blanket performance license, or a record label territorial sales deal—are individual permissions based on the national law.

Abolitionists protest, often quite rightly, about the behaviour of Big Content interests (movie studios, Major record labels and publishers) and blame copyright. If a Major label rips off their artists or customers that isn’t the fault of copyright. If you’re unhappy about Apple’s commission on iTunes sales that isn’t the fault of copyright either. Copyright simply gives the artist the choice, it has no control over what happens after the choice is made; after the record deal is signed or the tracks are submitted to an aggregator.

We covered most of the points in comments on the previous post but here’s one angle that’s worth bringing together.

Copyright abolitionists imagine that without copyright, artists would still be able to earn a living from their art while wider society enjoyed their work for free. That alone is quite a tricky argument to sustain but it doesn’t end there, they also imagine middlemen would be abolished. Let’s examine those 3 ideas:

Without copyright, artists would be able to earn from their art

If everything was public domain, everything an artist made could be copied. A great T shirt design could be sold in supermarkets. A box set of their music with special artwork and booklets could be re-manufactured in Asia. It is sometimes thought this would just be great publicity for the artist, but it’s hard to see how unrestricted copying doesn’t take food off her table. And would the middlemen pay her a cent? Why would they? Culture is free!

(Incidentally, I’m in favour of unrestricted music file-sharing but I draw the line at commercial third parties copying unique art without compensating the artist, unless that’s what the artist wants.)

Society should have free access to all artists’ work

Copyright doesn’t stop that happening—enlightened artists do share and it does help them.

Without copyright there can be no middlemen

Unfortunately you can’t abolish middlemen by abolishing copyright, unless you also ban the sale of goods and aggregation of content. There will always be shops and superstores. They will always need goods. A free supply of art and design ideas would be welcomed by big retailers. Many Internet sites make their living by aggregation (Google, YouTube, Grooveshark, and many others including the lyric sites Drew Stephenson mentions). Just consider all the places that copy your stuff now, then add the other commercial locations prevented by current law.

Abolitionists seem to think a level playing field would allow buyers to seek out the original artist rather than using a middleman but they wouldn’t. People pay a big mark-up for aggregation in a superstore and inevitably choose Internet aggregators over individual artist sites. That’s what they do now—the absence of copyright wouldn’t change that, it would just make art cheaper for the middlemen.

If you have a solution to these problems I’d be pleased to hear it, but copyright is designed to protect the artist in a world of commerce and unless you can change the world it seems we are stuck with it.

Copyright is not really complex for individual artists. If you want to do business in your own way it should be easy to describe it to customers. “Pay what you like.” “Buy one share one.” “Pay what you like, or nothing.” “Virtual tip jar.” “Free music, buy a T shirt.” The possibilities are as broad as your imagination, just browse some artist sites or Bandcamp. Lawyers will go purple, and they do have a point but only a small one. You need to make sure your licenses (“Pay what you like” is a license) are coherent and don’t conflict with other licenses but that’s just common sense. Don’t make two exclusive deals in one territory for example.

You can’t transfer your ownership without transferring your ownership, so don’t think you are endangering your copyright by offering your stuff for free. Don’t feel compelled to add legal mumbo-jumbo: “Pay what you like to enjoy unlimited personal use for yourself and your immediate family, limited to the tracks you have chosen, in the territory where you are resident subject to copyright law.” I don’t need to explain why that’s bad, do I?

(Some artists also fret about their best track being stolen by Sony and making millions for an X-Factor runner-up. That isn’t really a problem of copyright either. If you make your stuff widely shareable and it does get stolen by a Big Content user you have the problem of suing them. Your best bet might be to shame them on social media.)

You may prefer to use Creative Commons licenses but they are limited to certain specific uses and although many people think otherwise they too are based on national copyright law. Creative Commons is a set of copyright licenses.

3 thoughts on “Imagine there’s no copyright

  1. I think there’s a difference between middlemen and gatekeepers: middlemen are facilitators who help the artist and fan interact in some way, be that through promotion, sales, or anything else. A gatekeeper tries to ensure that that interaction doesn’t happen unless some kind of fee is paid – via their own handling of course.
    I’ve been covering this in my manifesto blogs but i suspect you have better ways of passing your time ;¬)
    Suffice to say that I think there is always a place for middlemen, hopefully less so for gatekeepers.
    Aside from that I’m largely in concordance ;¬)

    • I agree with that, although not always the “service”. It’s an economist’s viewpoint that everything is either goods or services. The existence of something in the marketplace doesn’t always mean there is added value, in my opinion.

      But if I implied middlemen are gatekeepers that’s not what I think. Gatekeepers are middlemen but middlemen are not always gatekeepers.

    • I looked at that post and changed “gatekeepers” to middlemen. That paragraph is talking more broadly than gatekeepers, so that wasn’t right.

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