not dead yet


Thu 07

Misinterpreting Copyright


I just read “Misinterpreting Copyright” by Richard Stallman, found the points he makes very convincing and am curious about your opinion as an author and someone who writes about piracy, DRM, and such things.


Stallman is right about everything. It’s just that the logical conclusions he reaches are so uncomfortable, it’s easier to pretend he’s wrong. It’s like PETA. There’s no way what we’re currently doing to animals is moral. But burgers are awesome and you can enjoy them better if PETA is a bunch of hypocritical wackos. So we’re all ears for that narrative.

Stallman is the guy saying, “You know, instead of buying that coffee, you could have given an impoverished third-world child safe drinking water.” You can’t fault the logic. But no-one wants to take it to that extreme. So you never hear people criticizing Stallman’s arguments. Instead, it’s always how he was late to a lecture or dresses badly or was rude to someone once.

So what Stallman is right about this time is that copyright was created for the benefit of readers, not writers. This is a foundational principle of capitalism in general: that the purpose of production is consumption. It’s not to create jobs. Jobs are a side-effect, a byproduct of having more stuff available more cheaply. Ideally, the stuff would be free and unlimited, in which case we wouldn’t need jobs at all. The stuff is the point, not the jobs.

The goal of copyright wasn’t for me to give up my day job selling Unix computer systems and live a luxurious life of working naked from home. That was just a side-effect of a system designed to encourage me to write more books. And frankly I’m not sure how well it’s working. It’s been a while since my last novel. Sure, it’s helpful to have time and freedom for writing, but I found being trapped in a corporate sales job pretty motivating, too. I can’t for 100% certain say that I’m producing more words today than I would if forced to sit under fluorescent lighting in a suit for 8 hours a day and given a laptop and freedom for one hour in the middle. Or threatened with waterboarding. There are lots of ways to incentivize artists, is my point.

But copyright isn’t even about that any more. At first it lasted for 14 years, after which anyone could sell copies, write a spin-off, or adapt the work; now it usually lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years, so just forget about doing anything ever unless you buy the rights. That’s not because we think we’ll get more books if dead authors’ estates can get paid in 2116; dead writers can’t write faster, and no-one ever decided whether to write a novel based on their prospects for postmortem royalties. Instead, we have adopted the idea that copyright is a moral thing, which artists deserve. If you make something up, you should be able to control it for the rest of your life, and then some, because it’s yours.

Personally, although I totally get the proprietary instinct (you’ll never treat my kids as well as I do), I think stories are bigger than authors. There’s no doubt to me that if copyright still lasted 14 years, we would be a lot richer for random artists and companies taking James Bond or Superman or Star Wars and doing what they liked. There would be a lot of dreck, yes. But from that hotbed of competition and evolution there would also be some truly great stories.

And copyright today financially benefits companies more than people. The vast majority of writers wouldn’t be affected at all if copyright was radically shortened, because the vast majority of books don’t generate royalties for decades. They do it for a few years, if at all. Only the mega-blockbusters have that kind of tail, and if you’ve produced one of those, you’re not starving. So in practice, the nice idea that artists should enjoy creative control forever translates into a small number of media companies cranking the handles on a couple dozen money-printing machines that no-one else is allowed to touch.

I’m a lot less idealistic than Stallman, though. Of course, everyone is.