Tag Archives: Statute of Queen Anne

What’s the point of copyright law?

One of the things that is making me happy at that moment is that Danny is blogging again. Of course, with Danny being Danny and me being me, we don’t always agree – and there’s a great example in that in his post on "Copyright, Fraud and Window Taxes (No, not that Windows)". Comparing copyright to the old Window Tax (don’t ask – read it), he mentions this:

"Copyright is a similar tax, imposed for the benefit of artists, and collected at the act of copying."

I understand where Dan’s coming from here. But, I think that if you want to change copyright law for the better, this isn’t a good way to frame the argument.

By stating that it exists to benefit artists, you’re framing the
debate in the same way that Cliff Richard does when he argues that “my
songs are my pension plan” – ie that the argument is all about the
actual group that benefits financially, and to what extent they
benefit.

And that’s an argument that, actually, you’ll never win -
because not only are you taking on existing rich artists, but you’re
taking a lot of aspiring ones too. Think of every band that’s ever
wanted to be famous, every actor who wanted to be a film star, every
street kid who wanted to be a rapper. Or think of the DJ friend that Danny mentions, who, as
soon as they’re directly hurt by copying, becomes vehement about the
fact that copying is bad.

The key question shouldn’t be “does copyright benefit artists?”
Instead, in order to get copyright laws which aren’t the current insane
mess, we need to return to the idea that copyright must be framed so
that it benefits society as a whole, by encouraging and rewarding
original work – or as the Statute of Queen Anne put it, “for the
Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in
the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein
mentioned.”

In other words, we should always remember that copyright is an
artificial monopoly granted because it has a beneficial effect for
society as a whole, not privilege that’s designed simply to benefit a particular class or
profession (and that word “artificial” is really important here).

So the real question is “what would a modern copyright work look
like if it was written from the perspective of encouraging original
work for the benefit of society as a whole?” And the answer to that is
“very different from what we currently have”. It certainly wouldn’t
last longer than the author’s life (and 20 years from time of
completion seems to me to be more justifiable – artists who can’t rely
on work made in their 20’s forever will be far more productive in their
50’s than ones who can).

It would codify and extend the rights of readers to copy for
personal use under a much wider range of circumstances than is
currently permitted, because the wide distribution of original work is
beneficial for society; and it would constantly remind authors that
this is an artificial monopoly, granted to them for the benefit of all,
not a favour granted because we like their hairstyles.