I’ve got several other posts planned out – one on Darkseid, one on the Beatles, a new playlist, and so forth, but I’ve spent most of today reading the new Pratchett (not a masterpiece like Nation, but solidly entertaining and summing up a lot of my conflicted thoughts about football – and at this point, the fact that Terry Pratchett is capable of producing ‘an average Terry Pratchett book’ is well worth celebrating). They will be coming over the next few days – having four days off work has made me far less ill.
But I’m going to deal here, briefly, with one of the comments from my last post – LemmusLemmus saying “Revolutionary idea: Let the artists decide whether they want to give their work away or not.”
Which brings me to a point I was going to make anyway – why should it be the artist’s decision, at all?
Essentially, saying the artist has a right to prevent someone who has purchased their work from copying it, is to privilege (literally – ‘private law’) the artist as opposed to the rest of society. When anyone else sells you a product, they don’t actually get to prescribe how you must use it, and proscribe uses that offend them. When I bought my banjo and mandolin, they didn’t come with special songbooks and a rule that I can’t play any other songs on them. When I buy my computer, it doesn’t come with a rule as to which software I can run on it (it might if you run Windows, but I don’t do that).
So why, precisely, should artists and authors be given a right to control what is done with their work once it’s paid for?
Currently they are given such a right, but what I’m questioning is why they should be given such a right. As a more reasonable analogy than the ones above, if I buy an apple and plant the seeds from it, I can grow many apples, which I can give to my friends who can then grow their own apples. We could put greengrocers out of business! Yet nobody has yet attempted to criminalise the growing of trees in one’s garden.
To my mind, the issue of copyright in fact breaks down into several totally different – and possibly incompatible – ‘rights’ for the purchaser and the artist.
1) The moral right of the artist. The artist should have the right to be identified as the creator of the work, and should also have the right to control some minimal set of uses of it. Paul McCartney, a famous vegetarian, should be able to stop people using recordings of his voice to sell sausages, as that would give the impression that he in some way endorses those sausages himself, which he might well consider defamatory.
2) The right of the artist to be compensated for commercial exploitation – I don’t think anyone disagrees that if someone is going to make money from the work then the artist should get some of that money. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with sharing recordings of Please Please Me by The Beatles – I think Messrs McCartney and Starr have probably been paid enough for their ten hours of work done when my mum was four years old. But if someone’s going to put that album out in a CD box set and charge people two hundred quid for it, it’s only fair that they should get a bit of that two hundred quid.
3) The right to share. This isn’t a legal right in the same way the above two are, and I think this is a problem. I think pretty much every decent human being will, if they have something they like, that they think their friend will also like, want to share that thing with their friend – especially if they can do so at no cost or inconvenience to themselves. I think that this is such a general instinct in humanity that trying to legislate against it is pointless, even were it a negative thing, which I don’t believe on the whole that it is.
4) The ‘right’ of artists to get paid. This is the one that most people focus on, even though the world doesn’t actually owe anyone a living for writing or singing or acting. A recording, book or whatever is only worth what people are prepared to pay for it.
So what we need to have for copyright (and please note I am here only talking about copyright, not ‘intellectual property’, which lumps a load of different, incompatible laws about trademarks and patents into one category) to function well – and whatever your view of the rights and wrongs of the current law, I think we can all accept that it simply doesn’t function – is some system that protects rights one through three, while at the same time providing some form of compensation for artists for ‘right’ four.
I’m going to talk about some of the ways we can do this in future posts, but for now I’ll just say that ‘letting the artist decide’ is not only simply not working – and prohibition of anything where tens of millions of people both engage in that activity and consider themselves justified in doing so is never going to work, no matter how much you may wish it – but also on shakier moral ground than it at first appears.