Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sacred Cow: Copyright

Another old piece of mine, this one from a forum. Please note that I am the son of a writer who gets plenty of royalties from published books and plays running in many theaters - so I'm not completely out of the loop on this one.

The poet Benjamin Zephanaiah performed at my college last year. He was completely awesome, probably the first person I've seen in modern English language who I would actually call a poet (I possess the greatest disdain for postmodernists). Anyway, he was talking about what constitutes poetry, and gave the example of the Don't Worry, Be Happy song, and the No Limit techno track. The guy who wrote No Limit apparently earned 3 million pounds for it. Never has to work again in his life. All for the lyrics "no no, no no no no, no no no no, no no there's no limit".

And of course, the guy will continue to get royalties every time the beat is used in a movie, TV show or commercial. The Making Of show for School of Rock mentioned that they paid $160,000 to use a quote - not a bit of the song, just two lines from the lyrics - by AC/DC.

Well, if you think about it, it doesn't really sound fair, does it? Most jobs you see, you get paid to do a task, and when you're done and you've received your money, that's that. You want more money, you do another task. But if you're a musician or a writer, you can have one successful work, and it will make you money for the rest of your life, and then some - the statute before a work of art becomes public domain is decades. But you're not doing anything to get the money - and certainly your kids who inherit the copyright after you die haven't done anything to deserve it.

You shouldn't be able to charge people $160,000 to use something you've said, many years after you've said it.

So here is my suggestion: abolish copyright. If the art is used as a tool to make money, the tool must be paid for. The final consumer however does not purchase the right to use the artwork for any purpose; the consumer buys a physical entity - the book or the CD. Use of the art is free.

If a movie wants to quote you or use your song in the background, they are free to use it (after all, the art of the movie can later be freely used in the same way). The artist makes money by selling content to a publisher, who then uses the content to attract customers to buy the books it produces. The customer pays for the book, not for the right to read the novel.

Result: a creative work is sold once for a fixed price to a publisher who releases it. After this initial run, it is free to use by anyone. Thus the artist is forced to constantly create new things and is stimulated to make them good.

Won't happen of course, but in a perfect world, this is how it would work.

P.S. Two important matters that arose from the discussion in that forum. One, huge-budget movies like LOTR would still get made because their budget is recouped on the initial big-screen run; if you want an interesting perspective on why people go to see movies in the age of DVD and BitTorrent, read "The Proud Robot" by Henry Kuttner. Two, copyright laws have indeed been made to protect the publisher more than the creator; a handful of world-famous authors earn very good money and get to dictate their own terms, while many others, no less brilliant, are forced to survive on lump-sum handouts and minute royalties. This has just recently been brought in focus by the death of Robert Sheckley, an undeniable genius who couldn't even afford emergency medical treatment on a trip to meet fans in Ukraine.

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