Daniel Lemire's blog

, 7 min read

Do we need copyright?

The concept of property is a social construction. Animals, such as cats, can own a piece of food, or a territory, but only as long as they are able to personally maintain a credible threat of violence. And animals can only defend concrete, physical properties, such as an area, a dead bird or a tree.

Yet we are trained to hold copyright as a natural right. People who infringe on copyright are labelled as pirates, thieves. We are told that they literally steal from hard-working creators.

Most people learn about copyright in schools. Often the local librarian will lecture students on the evil of photocopying a book. However, as is often the case, schools fail us. We have good reasons to be critical of copyright and we should question the myths that are often reiterated about copyright.

First myth: Copyright causes no great harm

In Mein Kampf, Hitler called for the destruction of France. Mein Kampf was translated in France. Hitler sued based on his copyright and had all copies seized. He later published a version specifically for France, censored. The censorship is likely to have contributed to his military success. Hitler took France by surprise, losing only 50,000 men in the fight, despite France having spent more than Germany on defence funding in previous years.

Second myth: Copyright is meant primarily to protect authors.

  • State-enforced copyright came about with the Statute of Anne in 1710. It was the result lobby of a group English publishers who sought to regain their monopoly on publishing. Handing out the initial copyright to the authors was a political gesture: the goal has always been to get authors to hand over the copyright to the publisher, effectively giving the publisher a monopoly.
  • In most countries, copyright holds for 70 years after the death of the author. Such a long-term copyright cannot possibly be meant to protect authors.

Third myth: Copyright protects the little guy.

Most of the revenue due to copyright go to wealthy individuals and corporations. Meanwhile, most people who rely on their copyright for a living (writers, musicians, and so on) have low incomes.

Fourth myth: Without copyright, there could be no innovation.

Some of the most innovative domains are virtually free from copyright:

  • The fashion industry is effectively copyright-free. Anyone can come up with a new design for a dress. If the design is successful, it will be copied and it is unpractical to try to enforce copyright. Thus, fashion designers must constantly out-innovate the competition.
  • Researchers freely hand over the copyright to publishers in exchange for nothing. Researchers are driven to invent and innovate because their remuneration and social status depends on their reputation. If anything, copyright on research work slows down progress.

Fith myth: We know that copyright makes us collectively better off.

The evidence points in the opposite direction. Germany had weak copyright laws up until the Copyright Act of 1901. Yet, maybe because of these weak laws, it became a literary and scientific power:

(…), only 1,000 new works appeared annually in England at that time – 10 times fewer than in Germany – and this was not without consequences. Haeffner believes it was the chronically weak book market that caused England, the colonial power, to fritter away its head start within the span of a century, while the underdeveloped agrarian state of Germany caught up rapidly, becoming an equally developed industrial nation by 1900. (No Copyright Law The Real Reason for Germany’s Industrial Expansion? by Frank Thadeusz)

Your dentist probably does not have access to the latest research papers in dentistry: subscribing to a single scientific journal can cost thousands of dollars a year. Is it any surprise if the general public is poorly informed when copyright is used to keep them away from the best science, leaving them only generic news content and blogs?

Even if you don’t care about science, you should be concerned with the cost of copyright. For example, have you seen the latest Star War movies? They are awful. But that is all we are going to get for at least another 70 years because George Lucas has a monopoly on Star Wars. Without copyright, or with more limited copyright, we would have had several creators competing to build better Star War movies.

Sixth myth: Without copyright, authors would not get paid.

American authors have always enjoyed the protection of copyright laws in the USA. Prior to the adoption of the US constitution, authors in the US were subject to the Statute of Anne. However, the work of foreign authors in the USA was considered to be in the public domain up until the end of the 19th century. One might think, since copyright is supposedly good for authors, that foreign authors would be penalized by this lack of copyright. It seems that there were not. Dickens made a fortune in the USA despite the lack of copyright. Foreign authors could sell their “authorization” and they would frequently negotiate advances in excess of what they could get in Europe. (References: Khan, Does copyright piracy pay and Plant, The economic aspects of copyright in books)

What about contemporary examples? Indian intellectual property enforcement has been historically weak. You can readily find copies of American movies made in India, and American studios do not bother suing: Indian courts place a high bar on infringement. Derivative works (such as making a movie or a book out of an existing work) are often not found to be infringing copyright in India whereas they would elsewhere. So how does India fare culturally? Well, outside of America, Indian movie production is unsurpassed (hence the term Bollywood).

Similarly, Japan, Korea and Taiwan have maintained weak intellectual property regimes. It is believed that this was a key factor to explain their economic growth during the second half of the XXth century. (Kumar, Intellectual Property Rights, Technology and Economic Development: Experiences of Asian Countries)

Many YouTubers make a good living. Do you think that if we abolished copyright, YouTube would stop revenue sharing? In other words, does YouTube share part of the revenues because creator have copyright? It seems doubtful. They do so because rewarding good content is good business for them. The same applies to other ventures like Apple Music.

When authors do get paid, a natural model is patronage. That is the model used by most scientists. Copyright is of no help whatsoever to mathematicians.

“But, Daniel, you are delusional! Not every writer can find a patron.” Am I? I have funded several book projects myself. For example, a lady called Kio Stark got $38,928 from us to write a handbook on alternatives to schooling.

Several authors get funded on kickstarter:

In fact, if you think about it for a minute, whenever you buy a book or a movie, you are being a patron to this project. So all work is the result of patronage. Cory Doctorow makes all his novels available for free from his web site. He happens to be one of the most successful writer of his generation. You can be confident that he is doing well financially. It works for him because people are willing to support him: his paying readers are his patrons.

I should add that whenever you follow a link to Amazon.com from my site, and purchase something, I get a percentage of the transaction. On a good day, I can make $5 with my blog. I could also add ads and make a few hundred dollars a month. You do not need copyright laws to make some money off a blog: your readers can act as your patrons.

My position: I see no justification for copyright. I am effectively a writer: I write lecture notes, research articles and blog posts. I get paid without relying on copyright. Instead, I have patrons: funding agencies, students, and blog readers. But if we insist on having copyright, it should at least be limited to a short term (say 5 years or less).

Further reading: Defining Property by Paul Graham and What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and What Policy-makers Would Like Us to Know About the Economics of Copyright by Ruth Towse. Related: Controversial AI art piece from 2022 lacks human authorship required for copyright registration. You may also enjoy my blog post Do we need patents?