In an earlier post I wondered about the legitimacy of current copyright law and was reminded of that fact this morning when I ran across a post by Matt Yglesias dealing with the same issue. His whole post and the links it includes are well worth reading, but here’s the nub of it:
The point of intellectual property law is to benefit consumers, not producers. […] [T]his issue is specifically addressed in the Constitution, which says that patents and copyrights should be granted “for limited times”–i.e., not as a transcendent moral right–in order “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts,” again, not as a matter of transcendent moral right. […] Intellectual property rights are created to ensure the existence of a supply of works for people to enjoy.
That last statement, and some of the replies it drew in the post’s comment stream, spurred me to add my own response:
OK. I happen to be a poet. I don’t make my living as a poet because poetry is produced by and large without compensation, or with compensation so laughably minimal that it barely counts. This does not stop me from “producing.” Nor does it stop thousands of other poets from producing. The same is generally true for other kinds of “creative writers” as well: writers of short stories and novels, for example, typically earn their living by doing something else. The point being that new works will be created with or without financial incentives and the copyright laws that in our corporatocracy are used to protect those incentives. One could even argue that works whose producers simply would not create them without financial incentives are better left uncreated. Perhaps such works–created to make money (a quick buck or bucks in virtual perpetuity)–simply clutter the finite marketplace and crowd out new works generated by creative necessity.
After posting my comment, though, I started to think that I’e veered into an elitist space with those last two sentences. Are works written for financial reasons automatically inferior to those written out of “creative necessity”? Clearly the two can co-exist. So maybe it’s merely a reflection of my own schizoid existence, in which writing for myself and writing for money have never overlapped.
Still, it seems to me that the aggressive extension of copyright (cravenly championed by record producer Sonny Bono when he was in Congress) to life of the author plus 70 years–and, for works of corporate authorship, 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier–doesn’t serve the original constitutional aims of copyright law, in effect impinging on the more profound right of the public to freely read new work while it is still relatively new.