Copyright is dying – that is obvious to everyone. What isn’t obvious to everyone, especially in the music industry, is what a glorious and just outcome this is.
International copyright only came into being in 1891 – very recent considering the long history of music and the arts. And it was publishers – not artists – who convinced governments to foist the system on us. Prior to that, during monarchical times “copyright” was permission granted to writers by the king to print what was politically correct. It was government that introduced the entire concept of “idea ownership” – the basis of copyrights and patents – precisely so it could crush the ideas it didn’t like. Copyright has rotten origins.
So Why is it Evil?
We must first understand what property is, since copyright is based on the notion that ideas are property.
Property begins with one’s ownership of one’s body, and extends to all the resources one acquires through
- Trade (i.e. buying and selling)
- Manual labor (i.e. creation)
- Homesteading (aka “squatting” on a resource no one had yet claimed)
This can mean simply the clothes on your back, or a small ranch house in the suburbs on a quarter acre or, like Bill Gates, a 40% share in a $70 billion company. They’re all property.
The one thing all physical property has in common is scarcity. Dirt, houses, livestock animals, software companies – they’re all made up of physical matter that is in limited supply. How limited is relative – obviously a pound of dirt is much less scarce than a huge software company. That’s why their market prices are so different. But there’s a reason that, for example, air and light are free: they are not scarce at all and require no human labor to produce.
Scarcity is not some esoteric concept – it’s at the core of most economic theories. Economists and law philosophers write about it and its role in prices, competition, entrepreneurship and a host of other areas. Scarcity is a basic reality of existence in human society.
Ideas as “Property”
Now consider ideas and artistic works. A CD recording of a performance is obviously a scarce physical commodity – it takes resource and labor to record and manufacture. But that’s not why CDs used to cost $20+ back in the 1990s. They cost that much because of the copyrighted sounds – that is, ideas – imprinted on the discs. This is also why most CDs these days cost around $10 – because copyright is in the latter stages of decay, due to competition from other media. The cost of a CD is falling back toward the actual cost (plus markup) of the scarce, plastic piece of physical property that it is.
But the law still says that the CD contents – the ideas imprinted on it – are copyrighted. This essentially means that the CD is not wholly your property, like a pound of dirt, or a painting, or a company is if you own these things. Copyright puts the CD owner in a bizarre circumstance where the original publisher retains some ownership of your CD even after you’ve paid your $10-20 for it.
But the musical ideas on the CD are not scarce. If I share the ideas with my friends by playing them the CD, the original owner hasn’t lost his own copy of them. I haven’t “stolen” anything from him. Like air and water molecules, the sound waves that make up a musical performance are in such great supply that no one is made poorer if they are replicated ad infinitum.
Therefore, musical ideas in their raw form of pure sound – fail the test of true property. They therefore cannot be “owned”, and sharing them or even re-selling copies of them in different media cannot be considered theft or fraud. It may still be illegal to do so, but that only makes copyright one of the thousands of illegitimate sausage laws that clog the statutes and unjustly limit our liberty. And as we’ve seen in the last 15 years, the only way to sustain copyright enforcement in an era of disruptive technology is to erect a large and oppressive government apparatus.
This is why the institution of copyright is evil – it thwarts true law (property and ownership), and requires jackboot tactics to enforce.
So What’s a Musician To Do?
So if modern copyright is only 121 years old, how on earth did Bach, Beethoven & Brahms survive and thrive without it?
It’s easy to understand – just look around you now.
The music industry today is going back to the future – like Beethoven, artists are now surviving by hustling the old fashioned way: boot-strapping public performances and touring. Or, like Bach, they’re subsidizing their song-writing passion by taking side-jobs at the local church or school. Of course, they’re also getting creative and using today’s amazing technology to implement the business models like Connect-With-Fans+Reason-To-Buy.
Can musicians sit back and collect royalties and a share of the huge monopoly profits of yesteryear? Nope. But, those were the days of the golden handcuffs and the chosen few. The only artists who whine and complain now about those “good old” days are either
- Old artists who came up in the old days and are wistful of the time when they only had to record an album every three years to earn 5 times what they earn now, or
- Young artists who are too lazy to boot-strap things themselves and wish success was handed to them
But as Seth Godin has proved, these days you have to choose yourself to make your own success.
I encourage musicians to read up more on this topic – all you need to do is google “against copyright” and similar terms to begin the journey to a more common-sense philosophy on this subject that is so close to musicians’ hearts and wallets.
Ben Sommer is a composer and performer making edgy, political prog-rock. His music has been described as an original blend of Frank Zappa, Iron Maiden, XTC & Public Image Limited - with the bitter lyrical worldview of Warren Zevon and Donald Fagen.