If You're Arguing That Someone 'Deserves' Copyright, Your Argument Is Wrong
from the it's-not-about-what-anyone-deserves dept
For many years, we’ve explained why the debate about copyright is not a moral issue at all. Yet, whenever we get into discussions on it, sooner or later, someone makes an argument about how this or that creator “deserves to make a living” from their art. There are two things wrong with this statement. First, it assumes, incorrectly, that the way you make a living is from copyright. It is not. In fact, much of what we discuss on this blog are ways in which artists might be better off by not enforcing all of the privileges copyright grants them. But, more importantly, the use of the word “deserves” is especially problematic.
Julian Sanchez, who has been doing excellent work on copyright issues of late, has a nice post about how such arguments are totally irrelevant to copyright policy. He notes that it’s no surprise that artistic and creative people want greater copyright privileges, and fewer exceptions such as fair use, but that’s meaningless:
These will often be wonderful, likeable, creative people, and the correct policy response to these objections as such is: Cry me a fucking river; now piss off.
And the reasoning why is that copyright policy is not about what someone deserves or about rewarding people based on some moral grounding. Its purpose is and has always been clear: to provide incentive to promote progress. There are tradeoffs in these policies, and the end argument should never be about what someone deserves, but about what is the best net result for society on that progress bar. As Sanchez explains:
Wise assessment of copyright policy should have nothing to do with how you feel about the person or entity who holds the right at any particular time, because copyright policy is not about identifying wonderful and meritorious people and ensuring–certainly not as an end in itself, anyway–that their income is proportioned to their intrinsic moral desert–or lack thereof. We are all the massive beneficiaries of millennia of accumulated human scientific knowledge and cultural output, and not one of us did anything do deserve a jot of it. We’re all just extremely lucky not to have been born cavemen. The greatest creative genius alive would be hard pressed to create a smiley faced smeared in dung on a tree trunk without that huge and completely undeserved inheritance.
So banish the word “deserve” from your mind when you think about copyright. Nobody “deserves” a goddamn thing. (I say this, for what it’s worth, as someone who makes his living entirely through the production of “intellectual property.”) The only–the only–relevant question is whether a marginal restriction on the general ability to use information incentivizes enough additional information production over the long run to justify denying that marginal use to every other human being on the planet, whether for simple consumption or further creation.
Exactly right. Yet, somehow, I get the feeling that people will continue to toss out moral arguments. They can’t resist… and since they tend not to have the empirical data to support their position, it always gets reduced to irrelevant moral arguments.