Dean Baker wrote an excellent article about copyright that goes along with much of what I (as the creator of many copyrighted works) believe. I certainly don’t want to go back to the days of Cervantes when publishers alone were allowed copyright of authors’ works. But the truth is that today, with all the changes that have been made to the copyright laws, we are ending up with much the same thing. Baker takes on the common canard that welfare is social engineering while copyright enforcement is just protecting the free market:
The problem here is that copyright is social engineering. It is a government policy that redistributes money from the rest of us to the likes of Time-Warner, Disney, and Lady Gaga. The overwhelming majority of revenue raised through the copyright system goes to the entertainment corporations and a very small number of individuals. The vast majority of creative workers make little or nothing through the copyright system. [Tell me about it! -FM]
It is necessary to finance creative work, but copyright is an extremely inefficient tool for this purpose… It creates an enormous gap between the price and marginal cost of a product. Economists usually get upset when a tariff or other trade barrier raises the gap between price and marginal cost by 10-20 percent. In this case, items that would be free without a copyright monopoly, instead can be quite costly. This implies enormous economic losses.
In addition the enforcement of copyright is extremely expensive, especially in the Internet Age. The difficulties of enforcing this archaic system is the motive behind bills like SOPA, which would have imposed enormous costs on intermediaries to ensure that they were not being used to transfer unauthorized copies of copyrighted material.
Artistic freedom Voucher
In the article, Baker links to a paper he wrote about The Artistic Freedom Voucher. The basic idea is brilliant. Our current system (copyright law) supports creative activity by pushing money from the bottom to the top. The AFV would support creative activity in a much more direct way by allowing everyone to give $100 to their chosen artist. This would be done as a tax credit—in my mind at least, kind of like that question on Form 1040, “Would you like to give $3 toward elections?” or whatever it actually says. The program would be entirely voluntary. Taxpayers would not have to give and artists would not have to participate. If artists did participate, they would have to give up any copyright protection for some period of time (Baker suggests 5 years).
If everyone participated, this would support a half-million artists at an income of $40,000 per year. As Baker says, this is one possible alternative to copyright law. And one that would appeal to most artists who are not, like the Mothers of Invention, just in it for the money. The more important point is that there are lots of ways to support the arts. We don’t have to stick with copyright law and there is nothing “natural” about copyright law.
Protect Corporations (and Paul McCartney)
This is a very exciting idea to me, because I have long been a critic of copyright law. In the US, copyright is now a minimum of 95 years. This means the wonderful and rare “Lu-Brent’s” Exclusive Card Mysteries that I own is still under copyright even though it was published in 1933. Give me a break! It amazes me to think that the copyright on The Beatles’ Yesterday will outlive me! This is madness. And the government has only made it worse, extending copyright retroactively. This is not done for the benefit of artists and their heirs; it is done for the benefit of corporations. And it no only hurts art consumers, it hurts art creators.
 According to The Telegraph, McCartney is worth upwards of one billion dollars (a half billion pounds). Could this be why he really hasn’t done anything particularly good since my childhood? Let’s see, Shakespeare sucked after he was wealthy. Cervantes only got better throughout his life of poverty. I have three data points and the results are in: money destroys artists!
Update: It isn’t that I expected McCartney to do Yesterday and Penny Lane for the rest of his career. Quite the contrary. There are flashes of brilliance throughout his later career that make my observation all the more poignant. I still think that Here Today is the only listenable John Lennon tribute song, even if it does only barely transcends some of McCartney’s worst lyrical impulses.