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A Copyright is Property

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Message Douglas Smyth

Originally Published on OpEdNews

Copyright is a legal creation, an establishment of property rights, intended to foster the arts. Yet it can also be used to deny them. The estate that owned the rights to Gone With The Wind prevented publication of The Wind Done Gone, a satirical parody of the original, in which the black slave, not the white mistress, tells the story. Quite original itself, it was removed from publication by the court as a "violation" of the original's copyright.

Copyright has been extended to many years after the creator's death, why? Not for the descendants of some great author, but to protect Mickey Mouse for Disney. But copyright is also the only property a novelist, has. Most authors don't make the billions that Disney does, or J.K.Rowling, but what else can the non-star sell? Will the non-star novelist make money on paid appearances? Hardly.

If not copyright, then there would have to be some other support for creators--if you want to promote the arts. In aristocratic regimes there were noble patrons, and in autocracies there were kings ladling out patronage. Maybe that did produce great, if often sycophantic art: Bach, Michelangelo, ?. In mercantile Venice and the Lowlands, merchants paid high prices for art, and sometimes had pet poets in their entourage.

The idea of copyright is synchronous with a market-based economy, and one in which individual worth is based upon the market, as well. But there is a non-market aspect to the arts and literature: it's called access and luck. There are great works of art and literature out there (I know of some of them) that will never get more than minimal attention, because the people who count don't know about them, because they don't know them.

So, even if published, no one will ever hear about them, unless they have a huge amount of money to pay the best placed publicists. But if they had gone to the right cocktail parties getting known wouldn't have been a problem.

Or if luck happened.

But, obviously people will create, do create, with little expectation of huge returns. Writers laugh at anyone who says they're going to write a book because they have to make a lot of money quick. Only a few ever do. There is a star system in which a few get insanely high advances (often not earned out), and most get perhaps $10,000, if they're very lucky, for a work that may have taken them years to write. Think about the hourly wage for that!

But if you want creation, it can't be entirely free. In many European states (and Canada) there are a lot of government grants for the arts, but something is needed for the artist to have at least a middle class existence. If you didn't want artists to aspire to the middle classes, you might be encouraging a very different kind of art.  If all artists were reduced to subsistence, art would tend to be subversive of all property, so perhaps copyright law should be maintained, unless you want revolutionary anarchy, or sycophancy to dominate art and literature. Or perhaps something like the old WPA for artists, now that we're treading onto New Deal type territory.

In any case, copyright is a social creation, and its nature and use could be changed to reflect changing times. I have a novel and a non-fiction book that I've made available as pdf downloads at free books on my website, as an experiment, to see how many I give away, and to see if I get any feedback on them. So far, I've given away 74 in a month.

At some point I'd like to get paid for my books, but maybe I'm just constrained by the old market-based model. Somebody please tell me, though, how else I'll get paid for my work.


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I am a writer and retired college teacher. I taught college courses in Economics and Political Science (I've a Ph.D) and I've written as a free-lancer for various publications. I now write a website and a blog at (more...)

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