Some thoughts about copyright

I don't cover it copyright, piracy, and related issues much because I have something of a radical view. But this time I'm making an exception. An idea has jelled in my mind that is so out in left field that I want to share it.

I was reading a piece in The Observer today and it inspired me it write this post about copyright.

Everyone says that copyright law exists to protect and reward creators, but I don't think that's true. I think it's just an excuse. If you look at the way it exists now (and how it gets expanded), you can see that it protects the middle men, not creators. I also think that's why copyright was originally invented. Here are 3 questions that I've been pondering for some time.

  • How does a creator benefit from a copyright 70 years after his death? (He doesn't, but corporations do.)
  • If the Big Media who bribed Congress into extending copyright last time around really wanted creators to benefit, then why not just give creators a bigger cut? (This one's obvious; there's nothing in it for Big Media.)
  • If copyright is needed to protect creators, then why is the fashion industry thriving without it? (They are.)

So let's take this a step further. If copyright now doesn't exist to protect creators, what makes you think that is the real reason why it was created? We all know that the first copyright statutes was written as a reaction to the printing press, a mechanical form of reproduction. But content was being created for millennia before the printing press. If protecting and rewarding creators were the reason for its existence, then what took so long?

I think copyright was really invented because someone saw a business opportunity in making copies of a work. And what better way to make a profit than to get the government to grant you a monopoly?

I don't think it was ever about the creators, in spite of the platitudes. I think it was about the middle men all along. What do you think?

About Nate Hoffelder (11466 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader: "I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

29 Comments on Some thoughts about copyright

  1. It was never meant to protect creators, and never did. I hope it’ll someday be abandoned, along with ‘intellectual property’ newspeak.

  2. 1. How do you propose for a writer to make a living? Would you pay her/him for what s/he is writing?
    2. Who’s gonna pay for the copies (for the presses, for editing and for the entire DTP process, distribution, promotion), whether in a paper or an electronic form?
    People were eating “for millennia” before the adoption of the fork (say 1600). Should we go back at eating with our fingers? 🙂 I suspect that the fork producers are simply acting like middle men between us and our food.

    • 1. I don’t know why anyone would come to a blog they read for free and make that argument. I mean, you’re not paying me anything.

      2. Who pays the cost of pd titles when they’re published? Your question assumes that no one will publish pd titles because there’s no copyright.

      • 1. You do not eat? It’s your option. (And your stomach.) But I guess you have to earn some money somehow in order to allow yourself to keep this blog. You could have a sponsor / patron / Maecenas. You could sell advertising space / links. Or ask for a fee… It’s not my business.
        2. Yes. If anyone could republish a pd title and sell it for a profit without paying the author or the agent or the publishing house who promoted him/her in the first place, yes, we will have only a few major publishing houses, able to mitigate such events by pressing the distributors, and not so many writers… (It could be a good thing. Or not.) People will not invest their money if they aren’t allowed to make a profit. It’s like I will seed the field, but someone else is allowed to harvest it too.
        Basically you want to take the business out of the publishing business. 🙂 I think it will not work on the same scale as it works today. I hope I misunderstood you.

        • @Jan

          1. You’re still not paying me, so your argument is at best logically inconsistent. Pay up or shut up.

          2 “few major publishing houses”? Bullshit. Look at the fashion industry. “People will not invest their money if they aren’t allowed to make a profit.” Perhaps, but it doesn’t mean people will stop creating. Why do you assume people need copyright as incentive to create? Look at the fashion industry.

          • Not only fashion, what about the food industry? There are no copyright protection laws for food recipes or alcoholic drinks, and they seem to do just fine.

  3. Hmm, but say suppose that I am an autor of something very popular like Lord of The Rings… And someone wants to make a movie based on my book, and I refuse… And he kills me and whoala, there is no copyright and he can shoot the movie. Maybe not the best comparsion, but you get the point, it is not just corporations…

    • Ironic it that you used Lord of the Rings as your example. Because if copyrights had been left alone the first 2 books would have entered the Public domain on Jan 1 2011. And then anyone would have been free to expand upon it freely.

  4. I’ve started reading _Common as Air_ by Lewis Hyde. He does make the point that the text of the Statute of Anne does say “authors and proprietors” – that is, their publishers/printers. Up until now, the two sort of automatically went together unless you were selling mimeograph copies of your work. And originally, copyright didn’t apply to translations or other derivative works. Oh, yes, and copyright protection did not extend to non-citizens of the USofA. US printers had a merry time reprinting overseas works without overseas payments. Now the US government want to export the most restrictive, publisher-friendly copyright laws the world has ever seen. It’s amazing what money will buy. Nate, it’s hard to see where you might be wrong – but what will we do about it?

  5. Copyright gives creators the incentive to produce a better work. What need is there of editors if not to out-compete the other works?

    In a similar vein, copyright also allows encourages additional investment into the product (e.g., larger production runs) in the hopes of making the money back.

    On the other hand, this exclusive monopoly was also the reason that it took decades for ebooks to take off. Even today, most publishers tend to be anti-customer. In the absence of copyright, we would have simple, single-source web sites with better selection and better products which are easier to use.

    I believe that, in the absence of copyright, people would continue to produce, but it would be under a very different, and probably not better, model.

    Also, while there is a disdain for “middle men”, they oftentimes serve a very useful purpose. Publishing is not a slam-dunk guarantee of profit, and the existence of non-creators in a belt-tightening industry de-facto demonstrates that they add value to the delivery chain.

  6. Wow, this has generated a lot of hot discussion. As an author, I don’t know how I keep ownership of my work without copyright. I put a lot of work into creating and polishing a book and if there is no copyright, what is to stop someone from taking it and making money off it?
    As a publisher I work hard with the authors to help them polish their work, without copyright, how do we make money?
    Unless you only want to give your work away, there needs to be some type of protection to allow people to ‘own’ their work.
    As for this blog being free – well, you chose to do it that way.

    • What makes you think you can own an idea?

    • With such brief discussions hard to go into the whole “copyright” issue. But copyright was intended to balance the interests of the publisher/author against the interests of the people. With works going into the public domain after a specified period of time and allowing members of the public to be creative off of the ideas inspired by the work. Why do you think we have so many movies of Dickens “A Christmas Carol”? The Reason is public domain. Nothing enters the public domain under the new laws until 2019. So be be careful what you write or publish because someone long gone may have written that very thought you had and you could be sued by the holder of that copyright. Copyright doesn’t make you money… selling books does.

  7. Copyright laws were originally in place to protect the printers. Since the printing press made exact duplicate copies, anyone with a printing press could duplicate anyone’s work. So copyright laws were in deed to protect the business of making books. It also allowed government’s to help keep in check the flow of information. Remember that most countries did not have freedom of the press back in the 1500’s.

    Modern copyright laws do help the publishers but they also help the authors. How do you think the Stephen King’s of the world would feel if they wrote books that the next day people could duplicate and sell massive amounts of and he never sees a penny.

    By the way, ideas are not what are being copyrighted. It is the written text that is being copyrighted. There is a huge difference.

    Now Nate, no one is forcing you to do this blog. So you do not really have an argument with Jan about paying you anything. If you are having financial difficulties, I would not take it out on your readers. You were downright rude to Jan who just pointed out flaws in your statements.

    The fashion industry does try to patent their goods since copyright’s do not apply. They also trademark their brands. There is also recent legislation where the fashion industry is trying to gain more rights to their designs.

    • Printers don’t _need_ protection, so basically you’re agreeing with me.

      And no, anyone who want to make an argument along the lines of “writers deserve to be paid for their work” needs to pay me first. Otherwise they don’t actually believe it.

    • Instead of using King, how about using John Kennedy Toole as an example to answer the question you asked. And ummm just to point something out the first type of copyright law was the Statute of Anne… it was to protect the authors. The U.S. Constitution addresses copyright and says authors and inventors. But then again we are in the age of re-writing history so who knows what will be pushed off as the truth tomm. And as far as the Jan/Nate exchange….rude is merely a perception and sarcasm is hard sometimes in cyber. But I found it interesting that you were able to you quantify out of that exchange that Nate had financial difficulties. Great Job on your site Nate, since i got my e-reader I have enjoyed checking it daily.

      • The Statue of Anne does say it is to protect authors but it gave rights to the publisher for 14 years on new works and 21 years on previous works. I did confuse it with what existed before. Thanks for the clarification. I am not an expert on this at all.

        • Neither am I. Just feel so much information put out as the truth now a days when it really isn’t. The interesting part of Statute of Anne is that it could only be extended if the author was still alive.

  8. I was telling you the history of copyrights and how it started. I believe that there was a closer relationship between the printer and the writer than exists today. The printer back in ye olde times would be the same as the publisher today.

    While it does support some of your claims, it does not say that copyrights do not protect authors. It protects both parties so they can retain rights and make as much money off of the intellectual property as they can.

    You and some other people act like making money is such a bad thing. Especially when some people work hard for it.

    You write a free blog. If you want to be paid for this, then you need to charge a fee. You also do not do that much writing. Most of what you have on here is cut and paste from other blogs or press releases.

    What I would do if I were you is spend more time researching and develop more in depth analysis of what you write about. Collect your articles and then try to publish a book based on it. We are in the infancy of the digital printed page with e-books and tablets. What you have here is a documentation of history which one day will be considered “how it use to be”. That is, if you want to make money off of this site.

    You could also start to try and brand your blog and sell merchandise.

    Don’t beg for money, go out and make some money.

    • Too little time, so little consequence. The discussion is interesting, though.

      First, the discussion was completely derailed by Nate’s comment about the hypocrisy of believing authors should be paid while not paying the author of the piece in question (and also addressing the there-is-only-content-because-of-copyright issue). It could have evolved into an interesting discussion on how copyright is the primary tool available for Nate to monetize, but instead it turned into a discussion of how Nate is “begging” incorrectly.

      Zigwalski, I believe you are completely wrong. “Begging” for money is a tried-and-true tactic and, especially nowadays with easy and free availability of most content, in some ways the only way people make money in content. (Amanda Palmer’s words here are appropriately impassioned: ).

      Is entertainment really a multi-billion dollar industry because of an ill-understood, disrespected law? I would maintain that it is mostly because people want to support the artists and do the right thing. Many authors (and this is probably biased because they are simply the most vocal) seem to believe the worst of their readers which is why discussion tends to get so heated in these things.

      One other point of discussion: as I mentioned above, I like single-source distribution. I like the model of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, and iTunes. Copyright is, arguably, the primary reason we can exist in a world with these kinds of stores and still reward the artist. (After all, without copyright Amazon could simply revoke payments to artists at any point.)

      Anyway, this isn’t the best format for discussion and interest will likely disappear now that the article is off the front page.

  9. I think you answered your own question: before mechanical forms of reproduction, copying was small-scale, and thus less of a significant threat.

    Personally, I think the idea of copyright is not that bad, but the extensions of the copyright terms have gotten RIDICULOUS. I personally think it should be something like either fifty years after the creation of the work, or the creator’s death + 20, whichever comes first.

    • I feel if you create a blog that is free like this one, that Nate should not gripe about us not paying to read it because we pay to buy a book or for an ebook. He acts like he is being cheated out of something when he chose to do this. There are ways to make money and Nate needs to learn how to do it.

      Also, Nate and others feel like everything should be free or in public domain because they really do not want to pay for anything. There will always be some sort of open market but there will always be a commercial market.

      Which is going to make more money? Begging or going out there and work and try to make money.

      • “Also, Nate and others feel like everything should be free or in public domain because they really do not want to pay for anything.”

        Please do not put words in my mouth. I said nothing of the sort.

      • I really don’t understand the problem here.

        I saw her comment as saying “writers deserve to be paid”. If someone is going to come to my blog and make that argument then I expect them to live up to it. I don’t see why that’s unreasonable.

  10. I could be totally wrong. But it looks to me if you have totally missed the point. I have never felt that this whole discussion has been about Nate being paid. Or wanting things for free. If we start with the initial post he never stated he was looking for money. He posed questions and then in response to others made some comments. It appears… as usual..people go off on some wild tangent. And to say that everyone feels things should free be shows the dinosaur mentality that is fighting a bunch of 1 and 0’s. But then its easier to fight in a vacuum then to discuss reality. And in the words of Shakespeare .. which is in the public domain..”The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

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