Let's abolish copyright

Why making all content open access would be great for us all, including artists and writers
Glyn Moody

The lazy oligopolies that now dominate the publishing, music and film sectors have done a bad job of supporting the key people they depend upon – creators – while paying their own executives exorbitant salaries for exploiting ruthlessly the work of others. It's time they moved aside, and gave a new generation of entrepreneurs and startups the chance to show that they could do better.

The business models of publishers, recorded music companies and film studios are all based on using copyright's intellectual monopoly to control creative material, which is often produced by third parties. Monopolies are generally regarded as bad, because they stifle competition and limit substitution for consumers. The routine justification for copyright's monopoly is that it is needed in order to reward creators fairly.

A few superstar writers and musicians may do well from today's system, but they are high-profile exceptions. Copyright fails to support the vast majority of ordinary creators, who struggle to earn a decent wage. A 2018 survey by the Authors Guild revealed that median earnings from book income fell by 50%, from $6,250 in 2009, to $3,100 in 2017. In the music industry, a 2021 UK Parliamentary report found that performers' incomes average less than the median wage.

Perhaps it is time to look for alternative ways of funding creativity. One possibility is building on the idea of "true fans", first described by Kevin Kelly in 2008. People who love an artist's work will often pay far more than the nominal price for a book or song. They will continue to buy official versions even if free copies are circulating online. They may donate regularly to the artist, because they understand their favorite creators need a stable income, or their art will dry up.

Before copyright existed, most creation was supported in this way, through funding by true fans, except that typically there was only one fan, a rich and powerful patron – perhaps a member of royalty, an aristocrat or senior cleric – who provided the money required to make a work of art. In return, they received both the work and the kudos of supporting the creative endeavor.

It is also how most academic research is supported today. Here, the patrons are universities and other higher education establishments. They pay their professors and researchers, who then write books and papers, sometimes alongside other work, such as teaching. The money they earn from those books and papers is generally too little to live on, but is in this case ancillary to the institutional funding.

The difference in the 21st century is that the Internet has democratized patronage: anyone who is online can make a donation, whether small or big. Contributors receive the benefit of a completed project, along with the satisfaction of knowing they are supporting an artist whose work they enjoy.

The true fan idea is no mere theory. There are now many general and specialist crowdfunding sites like Patreon, Kickstarter, Bandcamp and Twitch, which allow true fans to support creators directly. According to one piece of research, crowdfunding was valued at $17 billion in 2021, and the global crowdfunding market is projected to grow to $43 billion by 2028. Already it is possible to raise large amounts. For example, in 2020 the writer Cory Doctorow used Kickstarter to ask his fans to finance an audiobook version of one of his titles. In a month, he raised $267,613.

There are some obvious objections to the idea of moving away from copyright to a system based on patronage by fans. Would JK Rowling still be able to make lots of money? One of the distinguishing features of her fans is their obsession with her work. Many buy everything she writes, and support every ancillary project. They are perfect examples of true fans: most would never buy cheap versions of her books, even if they were readily available, but would choose the authorized version from the official publisher.

In this case, fans may not make donations, but revenues would flow to Rowling just as they do today, without the need for copyright to be wielded against unauthorized versions. Other authors with many highly-engaged readers would be able to do the same. Those with smaller but equally passionate fanbases might ask to receive funding directly to boost their incomes beyond current levels based on minimal royalties.

If there were no copyright, it's true that newspaper stories could be lifted from leading titles like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal. But the same story appearing in a dubious no-name site lacks the implied guarantee of reliability that it has when it appears in the newspaper itself. Trustworthiness is what many people pay for now, and would continue to pay for even if the stories were available for free elsewhere. In addition, we know that readers are willing to support good journalism through donations. For example, the Guardian newspaper makes all of its material freely available online, yet it has over a million digital subscribers.

Moving on from a world based on copyright's monopoly to one founded on the special bond between artists and their fans would liberate many business models that are impossible today because of legal threats. It would create an entirely new ecosystem of services that are centred on creators, one where the limit is entrepreneurial imagination, not copyright legislation.

Glyn Moody has been writing about copyright, digital rights, and the Internet for 30 years. He is the author of Walled Culture: How Big Content Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Keep Creators Poor, which may be downloaded free of charge as an ebook, or bought as a traditional book from online bookstores.

Written by
Glyn Moody
November 11, 2022