Would Shakespeare Have Survived Today's Copyright Laws?
from the seems-like-a-better-question dept
Last year, when author Scott Turow (whose books I actually liked very much) took over as head of the Authors Guild, we noted that his obsession with “piracy” was misplaced, and probably not in the best interests of the authors he represented. We also posted a compelling response to Turow. Rather than take the time to understand the arguments and the data on this subject, it appears that Turow and the Authors Guild are doubling down on the “but… but… piracy!” argument, along with a good heaping of “the government must do something!”
Turow, along with Authors Guild executive director Paul Aiken and Authors Guild board member (and apparent Shakespeare expert) James Shapiro, have an op-ed piece in the NY Times that a whole bunch of you have been sending in, in which they assert that Shakespeare might not have been able to survive the web era, because of all of this “piracy.” The argument is quite a bit stretched, but see if you can follow me: because playwrights had physical scarcity, in that they could keep people out of the playhouses unless people paid to enter, it allowed playwrighting to flourish. They call this a “cultural paywall.” Then there’s some sort of bizarre leap about how copyright is really the same thing. It’s not. And, then it leaps to something about how stricter copyright laws are, ipso facto, better. The evidence for this? Shhhh, don’t bother the Authors Guild bosses with logic! And, of course, the inevitable punchline is the idea that Shakespeare wouldn’t have survived in this online era with all this piracy and stuff.
Of course, it’s difficult to think of a worse example than Shakespeare for this argument (and sort of bizarre that Shapiro would sign off on an op-ed that so thoroughly misrepresents Shakespeare). Of course, as most of you know, an awful lot of Shakespeare’s works are copies (sometimes directly) of earlier works. Sometimes they’re derivative, but other times, he copied wholesale from others. So the bigger question might not be if Shakespeare could survive all the file sharing going on today, but whether or not he’d be able to produce any of his classic works, since they’d all be tied up in lawsuits over copyright infringement.
Furthermore, the reason Shakespeare was able to make money by selling tickets was because seats in a theater are a real scarcity, and selling real — not artificial — scarcities is still a damn good business model today. Shakespeare could still make a killing on Broadway. Or he could go into the movie business and sell tickets to seats in theaters. There are plenty of real scarcities he could focus on. Jumping from real scarcities to artificial scarcities such as copyright, suggests that Turow and the others at the Authors Guild still don’t even quite understand what they’re arguing for.
Separately, it’s disheartening to see Turow — who really should be seeking out actual evidence — dismiss anyone who has that evidence by writing them off as “a handful of law professors and other experts who have made careers of fashioning counterintuitive arguments holding that copyright impedes creativity and progress.” First of all, it’s not just “a handful,” and these folks aren’t just coming up with “counterintuitive theories,” they’re often looking at what the actual data says — something Turow apparently refuses to do.
Paul Friedman, who isn’t just a law professor, but also has a long history practicing law, has a nice response to Turow in which he cites the always entertaining Judge Alex Kozinski in warning folks of the dangers of overly fetishizing stronger intellectual property laws as something that must be good. What makes it even more amusing is that Kozinski uses Turow’s most famous book to make his point.
That said, a growing percentage of the population is realizing that this obsession with “stronger copyrights must be good” makes less and less sense. And as the Authors Guild continues to have out-of-touch, fact-challenged people lead it, it’s only going to serve to drive younger authors away from the Guild. Smart authors today recognize the maxim that obscurity is a much bigger threat than piracy, and many have come to figure out that piracy is nothing to fear if you have a smart business model.
If Turow and the Authors Guild really wanted to help authors, they’d focus on helping them understand new business models, rather than supporting ever more draconian laws that will do nothing to help and plenty to hurt.