Great Ideas Live Forever — But Only If We Let Them.
The title of Mark Helprin’s May 20th Op-Ed piece (“A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?”) puts an important question front and center. And the answer is a resounding “No.”
It is precisely because great ideas and great works of art live forever that restrictions on accessing them should be temporary and limited, much more limited than they are today. This is not only because access to culture and knowledge is a public benefit in itself, but also because those who create new works build on the works of their predecessors and peers. All creation is derivative — as Mr. Helprin, himself a writer, ought to know.
Treating works of the mind as physical property fails at a basic logical level: if I steal your bicycle, now you have no bicycle; if I copy your song, now we both have it. When Helprin argues that the government should not be able to “commandeer” your works (by which he means, apparently, allow them to pass into the public domain), he blurs this crucial distinction. The government is not commandeering anything. Even after leaving copyright, your work is still your own. After all, no one is arguing against rights of attribution being preserved: the world will still know who made that book, or song, or painting. What’s really happening is that the government is finally relinquishing command of the work, by allowing it to flow freely in the great creative stream where the bulk of humanity’s inheritance resides.
The question we should be asking is: for how long should the government give any private party — sometimes the author, more often a publisher — the ability to prevent others from making copies and derivative works? That is all copyright does, in the end. It is not an ownership right, it is a temporary monopoly. In possessing a copyright, I possess nothing tangible that I didn’t have before, I simply have the privilege to cause others to possess less, and can rent or sell this privilege for a fee.
But if copyright is just the option to prevent other people from exchanging information freely, we should surely demand the strongest possible proof that it benefits society, before granting such severe powers even temporarily. Yet Helprin proposes extending copyright terms to be essentially infinite. Why?
Helprin has fallen prey to three myths. The first is the fallacy of a natural right of ownership (that is, control) for works of the mind. The reason ownership makes sense for bicycles is that, without ownership, it would be too difficult to decide how a particular bicycle would be used. Imagine a world where bicycles couldn’t be owned: every time I wanted to ride mine, I might have to put it up to a vote by the whole world. Endless discussions would ensue, perhaps a run-off election.
The idea is ludicrous, of course. We have ownership so we can efficiently make decisions about exclusive allocation of resources. But the key word is “exclusive”: when the resources are infinitely renewable, as with works of the mind, I can ride my bicycle and so can you, and neither of us need interfere with the other. The idea that owning creative works is somehow a natural right thus founders on the rocks of physical reality. When Helprin equates copyrights with houses, he chooses a bad metaphor, and comes to bad conclusions.
The second myth is that of the lone genius, the solitary creator whose works spring de novo from some unique spark, owing nothing to anyone else. That’s simply not how creativity works. It is sobering to realize just how many masterpieces we would be without now, had copyright laws always been as strict as they are today. Helprin cites a Mozart aria as an example of art (and let us note, in passing, that Mozart was paid through grants, commissions, and salaries, not through copyright royalties). If Helprin is fond of opera, has he considered that we would likely be without Verdi’s “Macbeth”, had Shakespeare’s plays not been part of the public domain, accessible to all as a basis for derivative works? I pick this example at random; there are many others. Derivation is not some statistical outlier, it is the norm, and the freedom to practice it has been central to creativity for millennia. Transcription, rearrangement, quotation, and translation of other works have always been the marrow of art, as any musician, painter, or writer can testify. Only recently have we begun insisting that certain of these creative imitations be kept private, or else be subject to the grueling process of “rights negotiation”, which causes so many works of art to be suppressed or heavily modified.
The third myth, which Helprin relies on unquestioningly, is that today’s severe copyright regime is justified because it provides an economic basis for creativity. A look at the lives of most artists suffices to show how wrong this is. Today, as in the past, most creators fund their activities through day jobs, grants, commissions, patronage, sale of first-print rights, and performances — but only rarely through copyright royalties. It is true that a small minority of creators do earn a living from copyright, and if we think that business model worth preserving, we should be considering how long copyright terms really need to be to support it. It’s hard to imagine, though, that if we evaluated copyright strictly as an economic incentive, we would be able to justify multiple decades of monopoly control, as we currently have, let alone extending and tightening that control to the degree Helprin proposes. A few years of copyright? A decade, perhaps? These are the lengths of time within which most copyrighted works make most of their royalties. Restrictions beyond that should be viewed at best as indulgences, certainly not as rights.
Helprin writes that “an agricultural-age law makes no sense in our creative era”. But copyright is not an agricultural-age law. It was designed in the early eighteenth century around the limitations of the printing press. Publishers, not authors, proposed it as a compromise measure to replace an expiring censorship law. Their argument was that exclusive print rights would be needed to ensure dependable reproduction, in an age when the technology and economics of print runs were the main hurdles in making works accessible to the public. From the start copyright was not really about subsidizing creation, it was about subsidizing distribution, just as it is today.
Except that today we have a far better distribution mechanism than the eighteenth century ever dreamed of. We’ve just finished building a worldwide copying and editing machine — the Internet — and this is no time to shrink from using it. Mark Helprin’s proposed course would hurt artists and the public alike. Instead, we should be trying to reduce copyright to the minimum needed (if any) to bring new works into existence, and treating works of the mind as seeds, to be returned as soon as possible to the fertile earth of the public domain.