I don’t believe in copyright. I argue that we need to get rid of copyright, or at least dramatically reform it. The public domain has been stolen from us, and I want it back. Everyone reading this post has grown up in a creative world defined by capitalism, in which adapting and remixing works — a fundamental part of the creative process — is illegal. The commons is dead, and we suffer for it. But, this is all we’ve ever known. It can be difficult to imagine a world without copyright.
When I present my arguments on the subject, the most frequent argument I hear in response is something like the following: “artists have to eat, too”. The answer to this argument is so mind-bogglingly obvious that, in the absence of understanding, it starkly illuminates just how successful capitalism has been in corrupting a broad human understanding of empathy. So, I will spell the answer out: why do we have a system which will, for any reason, deny someone access to food? How unbelievably cruel is a system which will let someone starve because they cannot be productive within the terms of capitalism?
My argument is built on the more fundamental understanding that the access to fundamental human rights such as food, shelter, security, and healthcare are not contingent on their ability to be productive under the terms of capitalism. And I emphasize the “terms of capitalism” here deliberately: how much creativity is stifled because it cannot be expressed profitably? The system is not just cruel, but it also limits the potential of human expression, which is literally the only thing that creative endeavours are concerned with.
The fact that the “starving artist” is such a common trope suggests to us that artists aren’t putting food on the table under the copyright regime, either. Like in many industries under capitalism, artists are often not the owners of the products of their labor. Copyright protects the rights holder, not the author. The obscene copyright rules in the United States, for example, are not doing much benefit for the artist when the term ends 70 years after their death. Modern copyright law was bought, paid for, and written by corporate copyright owners, not artists. What use is the public domain to anyone when something published today cannot be legally remixed by even our great-great-grandchildren?
Assume that we address both of these problems: we create an empathetic system which never denies a human being of their fundamental right to live, and we eliminate copyright. Creativity will thrive under these conditions. How?
Artists are free to spend their time at their discretion under the new copyright-free regime. They can devote themselves to their work without concern for whether or not it will sell, opening up richer and more experimental forms of expression. Their peers will be working on similar terms, freeing them to more frequent collaborations of greater depth. They will build upon each other’s work to create a rich commons of works and derivative works.
There’s no escaping the fact that derivation and remixing is a fundamental part of the creative process, and that copyright interferes with this process. Every artist remixes the works of other artists: this is how art is made. Under the current copyright regime, this practice ranges from grey-area to illegal, and because money makes right, rich and powerful artists aggressively defend their work, extracting rent from derivative works, while shamelessly ripping off works from less powerful artists who cannot afford to fight them in court. Eliminating copyright rids us of this mess and acknowledges that remixing is part of the creative process, freeing artists to build on each other’s work.
This is not a scenario in which artists stop making money, or in which the world grinds to a halt because no one is incentivized to work anymore. The right to have your fundamental needs met does not imply that we must provide everyone with a luxurious lifestyle. If you want a nicer house, more expensive food, to go out to restaurants and buy fancy clothes — you need to work for it. If you want to commercialize your art, you can sell CDs and books, prints or originals, tickets to performances, and so on. You can seek donations from your audience through crowdfunding platforms, court wealthy patrons of the arts, or take on professional work making artistic works like buildings and art installations for public and private sector. You could even get a side job flipping burgers or take on odd jobs to cover the costs of materials like paint or musical instruments — but not your dinner or apartment. The money you earn stretches longer, not being eaten away by health insurance or rent or electricity bills. You invest your earnings into your art, not into your livelihood.
Copyright is an absurd system. Ideas do not have intrinsic value. Labor has value, and goods have value. Ideas are not scarce. By making them artificially so, we sabotage the very process by which ideas are made. Copyright is illegitimate, and we can, and ought to, get rid of it.
Aside: I came across a couple of videos recently that I thought were pretty interesting and relevant to this topic. Check them out: