So in the aftermath of Prince’s death it seems a lot of people went looking for YouTube clips and other free sources to share, and didn’t find them: Prince was aggressive about protecting his copyright and getting paid for his work. At the WaPo, Sonny Bunch criticizes the view that the music should be available free, so what Prince was doing is wrong.
When Scott Lemieux linked approvingly to the article at Lawyers, Guns and Money, he got a lot of comments with a lot of disagreement. None of the counter-arguments were good, and several of them were old. Breaking it down:
•I don’t get paid for work I did twenty years ago, why should writers or musicians?
Because their work is actually earning someone money.
•Yeah, it’s fine if the writer gets copyright, but the heirs are just greedy and grasping to want royalties!
As someone else put it in the comments thread, if the family inherits a rental house, they’re still entitled to collect the rent. Why is this different?
•The ownership of tangible property is natural. “Intellectual property” is an artificial law created by the state!
But a lot of law is artificial and arbitrary. Shoplift under $500, you commit a misdemeanor; shoplift a penny over that amount, it’s a felony (the specific figures are made up, the principle isn’t). Forty hours a week is regular work, over that is overtime. And even ownership of land includes artificial elements, like the right to keep trespassers off.
•Copyright and royalties supposedly provide artists an incentive to create more—but people will create even without earning a living. Therefore the need for copyright is nonexistent.
True for a lot of creators, not all. And a number of creators, even if they aren’t earning money, are lured by the dream of someday doing so. And of course, if you can make a living at writing (or art, or music), you can get a lot more creating done than if you have to rely on a day job (I speak from experience). I’m pretty sure there are bootleg copies of my film books circulating online—if 100 people download bootleg, that’s like $300 out of my pocket, which is a considerable amount for me.
And while some commenters think it’s “artificial,” to be forbidden to stream or copy someone’s work free, I think “create the work get paid for the work” seems perfectly natural. With obvious “fair use” and similar exceptions of course.
•Prince was rich. He doesn’t need money. Copyright shouldn’t apply.
I’ve heard this argument before, and I think it’s unworkable. Just what is the level at which copyright stops working? What if Prince loses all his money, does copyright kick back in? And could you even set up a system where poorer writers wouldn’t be affected?
•Writers should just make a living off personal appearances and release the work for free.
As I’ve noted before, that’s just a bad, bad idea.
•Why should the writer’s desire to control copyright outweigh my desire to listen to his music/read his books?
Again, I think “access the work, pay for the work” is self-evident —but I know many people don’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I think there are huge problems with copyright law and the degree to which copyright is now endlessly extended (as has often been said, it’s the “Mickey Mouse” law—any time it looks like Mickey’s early works will be out of copyright, Disney starts screaming). The degree to which big corporations aggressively pursue anything even vaguely infringing is alarming. But I don’t want to ditch the whole thing without a good substitute in place, and we don’t have one (I’ve heard some ideas, though). And I think that’s a valid position despite having a dog in the hunt.
I agree with Lemieux a lot of this is just people feeling they’re entitled to get it free because they want it free (case in point) or because they think the price is too high so they’re entitled to get it free (as John Scalzi points out, that’s like justifying shoplifting a paperback because the hardback price didn’t come down enough).
Rant over. Go about your business.