De omnibus dubitandum
19 Aug 2011
Imagine your grandfather worked in construction. Imagine he helped build roads and buildings that still exist today. Imagine you would now be getting money, a few pence at a time, every time someone used one of those roads or lived in one of those buildings.
That would be great, wouldn’t it? Free money for something you had nothing to do with! How awesome would that be?
Of course it’s a totally ridiculous concept. You didn’t put any effort in to creating those roads and buildings, and thus you shouldn’t get any reward from their usage either. It’s a plainly stupid idea.
Except that this is exactly how copyright works.
A creative person, a writer or musician or whatever, creates something and gets an initial payment for it. So far that’s no different than most jobs out there, mine included – we do work and get paid for it.
But then that creative person then gets paid every time their work gets used by someone else. Every time a book is reprinted or quoted, every time a song is played on the radio, every time a movie is shown on TV, the creators gets paid.
Hang on a second… why is that? I don’t get paid every time a website I helped create makes a bit of money. A nurse doesn’t get paid every time a patient she helped recover from illness gets a paycheck. A teacher doesn’t get paid every time a former student earns big money.
So why do creatives get paid over and over again for work they’ve done just once?
The thought behind copyright and royalties is that it should encourage artists of higher quality to create more works, as they would earn more money with high quality stuff that gets re-used. And it disallows other artists from copying other people’s work and making money off of that for themselves.
But modern times have caught up with copyright law in almost every single aspect, making a total mockery of the entire concept.
First of all, I don’t think it’s fair that an artist gets paid over and over again for work done just once. If the goal is to encourage good artists to create more art, then paying them once for a piece of work – and have that payment be in accordance to the quality of the work – suffices just fine. That’s how nearly all of us earn our money, and it’s how all of us ensure future employment: by making sure our work is of good quality so that our employers want more of it.
The fact that artists get paid for their entire life for the effort they put in to a piece of work just once is, in my opinion, mind-bogglingly stupid and unfair.
The other aspect of copyright is to protect an artist’s work, making sure others can’t copy it and make money off of it themselves. This was probably a fairly valid point 100 years ago, but nowadays it’s a mostly hollow argument.
First of all, it’s pretty impossible nowadays to find a piece of creative work that is not derivative. Original work is pretty impossible to find. Every piece of creative output, from music to art to design to writing, is inspired by what has come before. Everything is copied, mashed up, diluted and mixed.
Second, I admit there is a good case to be made for copyright to be in effect for a certain period of time. A writer for example should be able to sell his books for a number of years without having to worry about someone else copying his books and selling them as well. A period of, say, 10 years sounds pretty reasonable. That gives the original creator plenty of time to capitalise on their creative output. And after 10 years the work becomes available for others to build upon, mix and remix, and generally integrate in to the collective cultural output of a society.
But copyright law in most countries have set this period of copyright to be insanely long. In the UK for example copyright on any piece of work is valid for the creator’s entire life, and then for another 70 years.
Yes, you read that right. Copyright is valid for 70 years after the creator has died.
This is of course totally and utterly bonkers. People who had nothing to do at all with the creation of a piece of art get paid for decades after the original artist has died. There is no sensible reason at all for these people to be paid, and yet this is exactly how the law works in this country.
This is of course because the people who make the most money off of copyright – the record companies, the movie studios, the big publishing houses – have a vested interest in making copyright last as long as possible. They want to keep on making money from the work the artists they’ve contracted have done, for decades and decades after those artists have died. And they’ve lobbied our politicians – with amazing success – to have the law go their way.
It’s pure and simple greed. There is not an ounce of genuine cultural enrichment at the core of modern copyright law. It’s only about padding the pockets of big corporate media organisations, and keeping the politicians they support in power.
Modern copyright law makes no sense. None whatsoever.