In early 2010 I wrote an article entitled “What We Lose When We Embrace Copyright” (WWLWWEC) advocating for the abolition of copyright. The first response of many upon hearing this argument is to wonder how artists would be remunerated in a world in which copyright has been eliminated. I addressed this concern in a Q+A section at the end of the article, specifically under the heading, “But how will X make money if copyright is eliminated?” My answer to this question was, in short, that there were plenty of ways for artists to make money under a non-copyright regime, and that artists really don’t have any special privileges to be subsidized by society anyways if their business models don’t work out.
Over the past several years I have come to modify my views on this issue. I still believe that copyright should be scrapped, but I would now advocate that a healthy system of public subsidies for artists be put in its place. The rest of this article will discuss why I wrote what I did at the time, why I had a change of heart, and how such a subsidy system might be implemented.
The zeitgeist of WWLWWEC
I wrote WWLWWEC with the audience of, primarily, fellow software engineers in mind. Many in this profession adopt as their political philosophy what might be called right-libertarianism or techno-libertarianism. This outlook embraces a laissez-faire attitude towards economic markets and sees government intrusion on said markets as inefficient, meddlesome and undesirable. So, crucially, any policy proposal that one makes must include little to no state intervention to appeal to a techno-libertarian.
It seems, however, that the position that governments and markets are and should be fundamentally separate entities is increasingly difficult to defend in the current political climate. The financial crash of 2008-9 and its aftermath hammered home the critical dependency of business on the state. Consequently, many free market zealots have been losing their religion in recent years. So I think there are many who previously abhorred any state intervention in the economy who now are reasonably open to the idea.
People like art
I stated in the WWLWWEC Q+A, “[T]here is no a priori obligation on the part of society to ensure that a certain profession is subsidized.” While this is true in a certain sense, it is also possible for there to be widespread agreement throughout society about certain properties people think should be preserved. I’m going to take it on assumption that people generally like art, a lot of art (probably as much as possible), and don’t want to see an art-impoverished world, whatever the political or economic system. And if good art is to be made, it makes sense that people that devote themselves to their craft professionally -- that is, artists -- would make the most valuable and rewarding art (and that people probably prefer exceptional art to mediocre art done by non-professionals). Thus we can say with reasonable certainty that society should subsidize artists, in any event, to free them from distractions that would prevent them from producing art.
There are many schemes one could create to subsidize artists. Economist Dean Baker made one such proposal, which relies on a voucher system. Basically, taxpayers get vouchers that they can use to allocate to whatever artist(s) they want, and artists, as a requirement for receiving money through the system, are forbidden from copyrighting their work. Such a system leverages the already existing tax infrastructure, would be more than sufficient to cover artists’ costs, and does not even require any sweeping changes like elimination of all copyright (besides, of course, passage of law that would bring the program itself into existence). In short, the proposed voucher system is a relatively unobtrusive reform that could easily be implemented within the context of the current legal and economic system. The political effort required to enact it, however, is another story, of course.