Turning Down a Free Palace for Everyone Requires a Very Good Reason

Imagine an amazing new invention that allowed anyone to duplicate any existing building, using no resources. However, the law requires you to pay for such instant buildings, at about the price of those made the old-fashioned way, on the grounds that allowing everyone to live in their ideal home for free would make it hard for architects to make a living. Relatively little of the money paid for the new houses, though, goes to architects–or even to their great-grandchildren, many of the actual architects being long dead; most of it, rather, goes to builders and real estate agents, even though these people are no longer necessary to either build or find a home.

Would you be surprised to hear that many people simply ignore the law, living for free in their dream home without paying the architect anything?

That is pretty much the situation we’re in with regards to copyright. You have a system of laws designed to encourage production of art and information in an era when these were distributed through physical copies, whose production and distribution was more or less costly. The introduction of digital technology means, effectively, that everyone with access to a computer and phone lines could have free access to all the music, literature and cinema ever created–were it not for copyright laws.

David Lowery, of the band Camper van Beethoven, takes NPR intern Emily White to task for admitting that she has 11,000 songs on her computer and has only bought 15 CDs in her life. She is, in effect, living for free in a palace without giving much thought to the needs of the architects.

Lowery finds this reprehensible. He goes through a mathematical exercise to calculate that White has taken $2,139.50 in royalties away from musicians–and that this works out to only $18 a month (going back to fifth grade). And $18 isn’t so much to ask, is it?

But Lowery’s calculation is based on artists getting about 19 cents from every song–which means that about 80 cents from every song goes to record labels and retailers who are essentially parasitical. Eighty cents times 11,000 is $8,800, or $73 a month–which is a lot of money to pay to deliver $18 to an artist (especially for a fifth grader).

One might say that it doesn’t matter if that seems like a good deal or not–the artist has an absolute right to be paid for his or her work. At one point Lowery describes this as a “constitutional right.” Presumably he’s referring to the Copyright Clause, which gives Congress the power “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” But–what’s that “limited Times” phrase doing there? If artists have an inherent right to keep people from copying their work, why is this right supposed to go away after a while?

Elsewhere in his piece, Lowery notes parenthetically that “the duration of the copyright term is pretty much irrelevant for an ethical discussion.” Actually, I think the continual extension of copyrights by Congress raises a some quite significant ethical issues. But perhaps more importantly, the fact that copyright lengths can be as short or as long as Congress wants them to be underlines the fact that having copyright at all is a social choice: It’s a decision to restrict the speech rights of people in general as a means to an end, which is the promotion of art and information.

So you really do have to ask: Is copyright a good deal–not just for creators, but for everyone? I don’t think it’s obvious that we’d be better off without any copyright at all. But given the way the culture industry works at present, it’s not at all surprising that a lot of people don’t think it’s worth giving up a free palace for.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.