Questions About Copyright

It's a Nina Paley tribute
In an online conversation, an acquaintance who supports copyright asked a number of questions about how things would work in its absence. Obviously I’m not chair of the anti-copyright committee, but there are some possible answers. If you have a better one, please leave a comment!

Q. I don’t think anyone answered my question above about who will fund drug research if scientists & researchers don’t give their time for free?

A. Universities, philanthropists, generic drug companies (some are very large, and the last thing they’d want is no pipeline), and (alas) probably government.

Q. should a publisher (small or large) have a choice of whether they give content away or not?

A. This is a semantic problem. They’re not giving anything away because copying and taking are two different things. It gets back to what I was saying about scarcity, and how information isn’t property. Nina Paley’s song Copying Is Not Theft explains the sentiment, although it’s not exactly a dissertation and obviously leaves unanswered questions.

Q. Should Gary Trudeau be entitled to syndicate his column however he wishes? Or should he be forced to give his “product” away?

A. Same answer. And the repeated presumption is that artists, musicians, and writers won’t produce content without copyright, even though historically we know that’s not the case.

Q. is a local newspaper entitled to charge subscribers for either its print edition or its online edition? (the only difference is in the method of delivery)

A. Sure, if subscribers will pay, then that’s between them. Also, remember that a print copy of a newspaper is a physical item, subject to scarcity, and really is property.

Q. is a reporter entitled to be paid for his research?

A. Entitled? No. Otherwise I would research things that interest me all day and demand payment from someone.

Q. is Bruce Springsteen entitled to sell his works? Or does he have no right to make that choice?

A. He’s entitled to do whatever he wants. This isn’t about telling artists what they can do, it’s about not telling everyone else what they can’t do. Incidentally, though, musicians make more money on tour than they do from CD sales, so this is a pretty big red herring.

Q. if you look at the credits of any given movie, you’ll see 100s of people helping put that together. Do they deserve to be compensated?

A. They’re unlikely to work on the movie otherwise. But you don’t need a copyright regime to make that happen. Iron Sky, a movie that came out earlier this year, was specifically meant to be free for others to copy, yet it’s made money from voluntary subscription, logo merchandise, etc.

Q. if a publisher (movie, music, journalism, art, whatever) or research company (bio-technology) invests heavily in something and it bombs, should the government bail them out?

A. Not in my opinion. But that’s not a copyright issue.

Q. if someone spend a year writing a book or journal article and it benefits the public, should that be free?

A. The “year” part is a distractor, because it relies on a discredited nineteenth century economic principle called the labor theory of value. Just because I spend time and effort on something doesn’t make it inherently valuable. Or, as Scrooge MacDuck said, “Work smarter, not harder.” The “public” part is also a distractor, since there’s no such thing there are only individuals, who surely would benefit unevenly from just about anything.

Q. If a farmer spends a year working in his field, should he be required to put the harvest in a free public stand for whoever wants it?

A. No. But produce is property, if you have an apple and I take it, you can’t also have it anymore. Information is not property, if you know something and I learn it, you still know it.

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