Frequently Asked Questions:
Was copyright invented by writers and artists, to protect themselves?
No. Actually, it was invented by publishers, to preserve an information ownership monopoly based on a government censorship policy.
The first copyright law was a 1556 censorship statute in England. It granted the Company of Stationers, a London guild, exclusive rights to own and run printing presses. Company members registered books under their own name, not the author’s name, and these registrations could be transferred or sold only to other Company members. In exchange for their government-granted monopoly on the book trade, the Stationers aided the government’s censors, by controlling what was printed, and by searching out illegal presses and books — they even had the right to burn unauthorized books and destroy presses. They were, in effect, a private, for-profit information police force.
After the Revolution of 1688, the government loosened its control over the press. No longer desiring strong censorship, Parliament decided to allow the Stationers’ monopoly to expire. This was a direct economic threat to the Stationers’ monopoly-based livelihood, and they responded by proposing a compromise: they argued that authors have a “natural right” of ownership in their works, and that furthermore this right could be transferred to others by contract. The placement of original ownership with the author was a smart political ploy, by which the Stationers avoided charges that they were attempting to resurrect the old (and unpopular) monopoly mechanisms. But the stipulation that these new copyrights were a form of property, and therefore transferrable, showed the real motive behind their proposal. The Stationers correctly foresaw that authors would need to transfer copyright to a publisher as an inducement to print, and that therefore the publishers’ position would about the same as it had been before. Indeed, their hand would be strengthened, because now the exclusive “ownership” of a work would now be based on well-established property law, instead of the temporary whim of the government.
The Stationers persuaded Parliament, and the result was the Statute of Anne: a copyright law created by the publishing industry, designed around the interests of the publishing industry, and modeled on a defunct censorship system. The Stationers’ argument was essentially economic: they claimed that they could not afford to print books (and thus encourage authors to write books) without protection against competition. There were some technological and economic reasons why the Stationers’ argument was plausible; remember too that they were monopoly-softened trade group worried about suddenly being asked to survive without special protections.
But there was no uprising of writers, clamoring counterintuitively for the right to prevent people from copying their works. The writers themselves didn’t participate much in the debate around the creation of copyright. The argument was crafted and presented by publishers.
Thus copyright is not really about subsidizing creation; it is about subsidizing replication, and it was designed around the dominant replication technology of its time: the printing press.
For more detailed information about the history of copyright, see our bibliography page.
Do musicians, writers, and artists depend on copyright to earn a living?
The vast majority of musicians, writers, and artists will never earn a significant amount from copyright royalties, directly or indirectly. For the small percentage who do, it rarely amounts to beer money — a nice consolation prize, but hardly enough to make a real difference in their lives, let alone to provide an economic incentive to create.
The copyright lobby rarely talks about the majority of artists. It prefers to talk about the superstars: the tiny minority of famous artists whose works are backed by the marketing power of the publishing and record industries. There’s nothing objectionable about these superstars, some of whom are quite talented, but to treat them as representative of artists in general would be to confuse marketing with reality. Most artists’ lives look nothing like theirs, and never will, under the current monopoly-based spoils system.
But without copyright, how will artists get credit for their work? What about plagiarism?
This is one of the favorite ploys of the copyright industry: to pretend that people sharing your work is somehow related to people claiming that they wrote your work. For example, here’s Hilary Rosen, the former head of the RIAA, describing the speeches she gave at schools and colleges, in which she urged students to adopt the industry’s views about information ownership:
Analogies are what really work best. I ask them, “What have you done last week?” They may say they wrote a paper on this or that. So I tell them, “Oh, you wrote a paper, and you got an A? Would it bother you if somebody could just take that paper and get an A too? Would that bug you?” So this sense of personal investment does ring true with people.
Of course, people who swap music files do not replace the artist’s name with their own. If Hilary Rosen had asked instead: “Would it bother you if somebody could just show a copy of your paper around, so other people could benefit from what you wrote, and see that you got an A?” the students would have answered “No, we aren’t bothered by that at all,” which isn’t what Rosen wanted to hear.
Copyright does not prevent plagiarism, it prevents copying — that’s why it’s called “copyright”. They’re two unrelated things, and it’s a pity the copyright lobby tries to make people think that permitting copying would somehow encourage plagiarism. (If anything, the free flow of copies in electronic form encourages accurate attribution, because when there are many copies available, a quick Internet search easily reveals the original author.)
See also the fraud and counterfeiting question.
Is copying a copyrighted work the same as stealing it?
If I steal your bicycle, now you have no bicycle. If I copy your song, now we both have it. Copying is not theft.
When the industry uses loaded words like “stealing”, “theft”, and “piracy”, they are using linguistic tricks, trying to equate copying with deprivation of property. Increasing the number of copies somehow results in a decrease in… what, exactly? Certainly not in the amount of money available to creators, which is precious little to begin with.
Sharing isn’t stealing, it’s the opposite of stealing. And sharing certainly isn’t like boarding ships on the high seas, holding the crew at gunpoint, and stealing their cargo!
Would creativity dry up without copyright?
If there had been no worthwhile or enduring artistic work produced before copyright, this would be a more plausible argument. But the world before modern copyright was hardly a barren cultural desert: Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, J.S. Bach, Li Bo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo… The history of human cultural production shows no evidence that sustaining creativity somehow depends on restricting its fruits. And no one can look at the wellspring of artistic activity that has emerged on the Internet in the last few years and come to the conclusion that allowing people to copy is somehow an obstacle to artistic progress.
Copyright does not support creativity, it supports distribution. As distribution costs drop slowly to zero, copyright becomes more of a hindrance than a help to creators.
Shouldn’t it be the artist’s / owner’s / publisher’s right to choose what license to distribute their work under? That is, to choose when and how other people can share the work?
Once we’re talking about giving some people the “choice” to take away others’ choices, freedom has already lost out either way.
To frame license options in terms of the “artist’s right to choose” hides the fact that what we’re talking about is one party choosing whether or not to reduce the choices available to everyone else — the choice to translate, to adapt, to study, even just to simply enjoy and share without negotiating an increasingly complex (and technologically enforced) permission structure. There is no natural right to “choose” that set of restrictions on other people. Compare: “Outlawing censorship takes away the censor’s right to choose whether and how to censor.”
There may be good arguments in favor of granting such monopolies anyway; the point here is just that “freedom of choice” is not one of those arguments.
But what about counterfeiting? Is it okay to copy money? What about copying someone else’s birth certificate or ID?
(Originally written as a response to a reader question.)
Fraud (i.e., counterfeiting) is different from copying.
If you download a song and share it, there is no fraud — there may be copyright infringement, but no false claims are being made. On the other hand, if you remove the original author’s name from the song and put your own name there instead, that would be completely different — that would be fraud, of course (it would be plagiarism, which is a specific kind of fraud).
Likewise, if you make copies of my birth certificate, IDs, etc, and you keep them locked in a drawer in your house forever and no one else is ever confused by them, that’s actually okay. It’s not the copying that’s the issue there. But if you were to use that ID to open a bank account and cash checks meant for me, that’s different. It has nothing to do with copyright. The issue is simply that it’s lying (and, in this case, stealing too).
No one here has ever advocated loosening laws that protect against fraud, or against medical privacy or things like that. But don’t confuse those issues with copyright.
Sometimes you’ll hear people say “Well, if copyright is so bad, how about I just start copying dollar bills! That would be okay too, right?” Which is silly, of course — there’s a reason that no country has their copyright office policing counterfeit currency, and it’s that counterfeiting is fraud, not copyright infringement. A physical token of money is a claim on the issuing authority’s assets; to duplicate the claim token is just like duplicating someone’s birth certificate or ID: it is only useful to enable fraud, because all these tokens are indicators of value held somewhere else, rather than containing the value themselves. Thus when you make and circulate duplicates, you do not increase the total amount of value, and you actually decrease the amount of value per token (thus effectively stealing from everyone else who already has tokens, which is why counterfeiting is a crime). Contrast this with culture, where duplicating it actually increases the total value in circulation, because more people are exposed to it.
Copying is not theft. It’s also not fraud. Fraud, on the other hand, may be enabled by copying certain kinds of things, but it’s not the copying itself that’s the fraud, it’s the subsequent lying, which the copies are merely used to bolster.
See also the plagiarism and credit question.
What’s the connection between copyright restrictions and civil liberties?
First, in the Internet age, copyright restrictions can only be enforced by surveilling your computer and network usage, and sometimes restricting them. That’s why the content monopolists want Internet service providers to monitor and report on what you download and what you share; it’s the reasoning behind the so-called “three strikes” laws that would cut off your Internet access if they decide that your connection being used for illegal sharing. Second, there is a more fundamental connection between freedom of speech and the freedom to share and build on the speech of others. Martin Luther King’s speeches, for example, are rich in Biblical references and imagery (the Bible being in the public domain, he was free to build on it). But the King family won’t let you use Martin Luther King’s speeches freely: they use copyright law to prevent others from sharing and building on his words.
The contradiction between copyright restrictions and freedom of expression boils down to the fallacy that the only speech that matters is completely original speech. Most speech is not original, and does not need to be. Sharing, and commenting on, the speech of others is fundamental to humans communication. Taking speech that’s already been spoken out of circulation is incompatible with true freedom. (Remember, none of this involves mis-attribution. Sharing Martin Luther King’s words is not the same as pretending you wrote them yourself; indeed sharing speech widely is the most effective way to ensure that it stays properly attributed.)
For more on copyright and civil liberties, see Nina Paley’s straight-to-the-point minute meme on the topic.
So are you advocating the abolition of copyright?
We’re trying to make it possible for people to consider what abolition would actually mean, by changing the way copyright is thought about and debated. Real understanding will lead to better policy; if abolition is that better policy, then so be it.
We do advocate, at the very least, a drastic reduction in the scope and duration of copyright terms; we’ve found it hard to avoid that conclusion after looking closely at the effects of copyright in the Internet Age. But whether outright abolition is preferable to simply taming copyright is a more complex question, and one we don’t pretend to be able to answer with certainty.
It’s also not a question that can be answered in the current rhetorical climate around copyright, which is too often still concerned with mostly unrelated issues like attribution, plagiarism, and the economic basis of creativity. Many people think those issues are what copyright is about, and are unaware that copyright was actually designed around the limitations of the printing press, not around the needs of creators, and that even today, copyright is far more valuable to publishers than it is to artists. In a world where distribution costs are quickly dropping to zero, and ambient findability is making successful plagiarism a thing of the past, it is important that we skeptically examine any policy that interferes with the free flow of information.