There has been some nonsense written about reducing the length of time of copyright for authors, down to, say, 30 years.
Many have already written about what this would mean for authors and other creators who produced something in their youth which was a steady seller, and then later in life struggled – thus relying on older work to carry them through a difficult patch. Beyond the fortunate few who have made millions from their work, there are many writers who work every day in a jobbing role, producing a body of work that they hope will see them through the leaner years.
The argument comes from a right wing Libertarian idea about State regulation. But this disruption of the conception of property would lead to results the Right would not be happy with.
The main argument those who want to drop copyright offer is a simple one: since it is now easy to reproduce works of art digitally, there’s no point trying to enforce against or discourage copying of work – and indeed, there would be a bonanza for other creators wishing to use the work of another writer and pay no fee.
Counter-arguments have included the idea that “a landlord of an apartment building wouldn’t expect to have his ownership curtailed after 30 years, nor should a writer.”
The reply is that a building and a book are different things. A building only has one owner.
And this is where that argument falls down. Because of course there is only one owner of the idea behind the written work, and that is the author.
“Ah,” comes the reply. “But the legal structures needed to support the idea of intellectual property amounts to a handout from the State.”
Let’s look at that. If one is opposed to State intervention when it comes to ownership of intellectual property, why stop there? Surely ALL State intervention in property matters is essentially supporting a legal fiction.
If you take the Libertarian argument to its logical conclusion, anyone who has acquired property through their labour is in the same position as the writer:
A house or a car can equally be said only to be in someone’s possession because the State upholds property laws.
If you can take away from the owner an idea they worked for, why can you not take away a physical object they have also worked for? Is it only because you can hold it in your hands or touch it? Surely, the point of principle about ownership is that the owner asserts the moral right to have earned it, whatever that property may consist of?
If we suddenly have a State intervening to strip people’s property rights, right wing Libertarians might consider whether this sits comfortably with their intellectual tradition. It is in fact half way towards socialism.
But it is only half way, because the State is only intervening to take away the property rights people now enjoy, yet providing no support for them after having done so.
As we saw with the massive handouts to business in the US during the pandemic, right wingers as ever support socialism when they see their own group will make a buck from it.
The fact is: intellectual property is property.
If right-wingers are going to ask people to hand theirs over, they’ll need to provide a fully socialised society to support those people they make destitute just because they happen to want to exploit a resource they neither wish to pay for nor want to put in the work to create themselves.
And as many a right winger will tell you: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Not even a publisher’s one.