Monday, April 20, 2009

The Death of Copyright

In my recent blog “A Reader’s Guide to Copyright,” one commenter suggested that we should get rid of copyright completely. This comment started my writer “what if” train of thought so here are my thoughts on what would happen if copyright were abolished.


When copyright is abolished, publishers will use even stricter security measures to protect their ebooks, but the books are soon available for free, courtesy of hackers. Paper books are scanned and put online as fast as they come out. With almost no profit, publishers go out of business.

Unable to earn a living, professional writers stop writing.

There is now no hope of another book by Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Stephanie Meyer, or J.K. Rowling.

Amateurs fill in some of the gap for new material, but they have little incentive to improve their craft, and most fiction is so horrible that readers long for the days of mediocre fan fiction.

Some new writers put famous authors’ names on their works to encourage reading.

People with maturity problems or a political, religious, or social agenda change others’ works so that the books available online often no longer resemble the original work. Scientific and historical works are particularly hard hit as are the works of popular genre writers.

Serious readers will be forced to find paper versions of these books. Unfortunately, in the first years of no copyright and an abundance of good electronic readers, many readers scanned then destroyed their paper books, many public libraries have closed, and paperback books have disintegrated with age.

Some lovers of good books will offer clean, correct copies of various classics at their sites, but most popular fiction will no longer be true to its original content.

Text books will no longer be published so school systems and teachers will have to cobble together information on their own.


The only way singers and musicians can make money is live performances. Song writers can’t make money unless they perform their own songs quite well. Most are unable to make a living because the “name” performers grab their best songs so they stop writing.


The moment a TV show is seen, it is in public domain, and the characters and series are up for grabs to anyone who wants to make their own version. Series like CSI disappear in favor of reality shows and one-shot dramas. Cheap production is absolutely necessary since the production companies can’t make money by syndicating reruns so profit is only made on the first run of the show.


Since a movie will go into the public domain the moment it is released in any digital format, new movies are only available in theaters. Theaters have strict policies to prevent movies from being taped from the audience. Even with precautions, movies end up in public domain too often to warrant vast sums spent on productions.

Big budget movies and multimillion-dollar movie stars disappear in favor of small intimate films with low budgets.


Broadway and live theater are the least hurt by the loss of copyright although rival versions of the same play in the same town is a constant hazard. Over the years, though, the vitality of live theater is lost because no new plays have been written in years, and everything is a remake.


New professionally-written computer software, with the exception of software hard-wired into specific computers and digital equipment, will all but disappear. Some computer communities will fill some of the gap, but even their software is plagued by viruses. No companies now write or upgrade virus detection software because their work becomes pubic domain the instant they offer it.


The loss of copyright would cost millions of jobs and billions of dollars, just in the US, but more importantly, it would hamper creative expression, innovation, scholarship, and the pleasure of those who enjoy a good book. That makes the “what if?” of the loss of copyright a horror story.


caleb said...

I could not disagree more strongly. First, people had been writing for thousands of years before copyright was invented. Many of our great classic books came from this era. Next, "Professional" is overrated. I have found an incredible amount of fiction online created by people with no financial incentive. Much of this is better then what is sold at bookstores. Ever hear of Fanfiction? A lot of it is better then what the original is. Next, see for a free book about this issue. Although it still doesn't focus much on copyright, it still effectively deals with it.
Finally, people like to share. It was a great evolutionary tactic. it costs nothing to share, and gets you a good reputation. I promise there would be no dearth of writing in a world without copyright.

Jon Jermey said...

There is far more fiction writing produced in a single day than any of us can read in a lifetime. People will write underwater, with one arm tied behind their backs, just for the chance of appearing in print; they don’t need to be paid. But let’s humour Ms. Byerly by assuming that all professional fiction writers stop writing tomorrow.

So what?

Copyright is over, so all the fiction that has been written already can be made available on the web — along with all the other forms of entertainment like DVDs and music. Volunteers will set up canonical sites to ensure that the originals remain accessible: it’s so easy now there are no copyright lawyers lurking around to threaten and intimidate. You and I can look forward to a lifetime of free reading, and discover hundreds of authors from the past who have been suppressed by publishers (who want to peddle new material because they have control over it).

And writers can now take jobs producing something that we actually need, rather than filling a manufactured demand caused by the legal suppression of their potential competitors.

Cerebus said...

Hyperbole much? Or just in your spare time?

I mean, come on. Plenty of people made plenty of money on creative works prior to the invention of copyright.

Artists create because they are compelled to create, not because they're paid.

-- C

meambobbo said...

I thought the best way to attack your argument is by invalidating what most would believe is your strongest area:

Anonymous said...

Checkout the Free Software movements. Licenses such as the BSD-like, MIT-like, GPL, WTFPL, etc. There is a vibrant world of free software, and I'm proud to be part of it. :)

As per music: Tons of artists license their music in Creative Commons licenses to allow listeners to freely distribute and remix their works. Check out the newly formed site (still a WIP). Also note that is a free software project (providing free music - a double whammy)! :)

As for publishing: I admit I read mostly non-fiction, so Wikipedia and Wikibooks rock for me.

Free software, Free society!

Marilynn Byerly said...

meambobbo, The text book experiment is just that, an experiment. No one can guess whether it will work or not.

Whether it is viable remains to be seen.

Walter Jeffries said...

Writers won't stop. I have written millions of words (10's of millions?) and thousands of photos. I've gotten paid for only a tiny amount of that. What typically happened was a newspaper or magazine saw an article I had written and published for free and then they offered me $50 to $500 to republish it in their publication. Some of them regularly republish from my blog. That's all nice but it doesn't pay the mortgage. Writing rarely does. Some of us write because we enjoy writing or because we have something to say.

The good part about copyright is it can be used to prevent the big publishers like Disney from stealing our works. And Disney is ironically the mastermind behind the DMCA.