Why the Copyright Monopoly Is Damaging Your Artistic Career…

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The following comes from Zacqary Adam Green, founder of free culture arts collective Plankhead and activist in the New York Pirate Party.

So you’re an artist, author, or creative person, and you’ve heard the arguments against the copyright monopoly. That it locks away knowledge from the public. That it hurts free speech. That it’s declaring a monopoly on an idea. Okay, but what about your paycheck?

As it turns out, the copyright monopoly is a raw deal that helps corporations steal your profits and barely helps you at all.

Copyright is more like a monopoly than property, but it’s treated a lot like title deeds in the Monopoly board game. That means the right to control your work — to say who can distribute it, reproduce it, remix it, build off of it, etc. — is a thing that can be bought and sold. Big entertainment companies love this situation, because that means it is legally possible for them to take your control over your work away from you.

The publisher who options a book, changes their mind, and then doesn’t allow the author to go to another publisher. The screenplay wrestled from its visionary creator, maimed by a team of hack studio writers, and released as an unrecognizable crappy comedy that flops at the box office. The album kept unreleased, in legal limbo for years after its been recorded because of a business deal gone bad.

All of these incredibly common situations are made possible by the copyright monopoly — and the ability to sign it away to a big company, forever, with no going back.

This is how the copyright industry — which is what I like to call these entertainment companies — makes its money. Not by creating anything of its own, but by silencing its competitors (and you). They need the ability to buy, sell, and trade away a monopoly right on ideas, words, and other intangible things, because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to dominate. They wouldn’t be able to siphon off all your profits, to maim and mutilate your work, and to use accounting tricks to keep themselves from paying you, because you would have a way out. But with this institution of tradeable monopolies on your work, massive corporate titans are able to pummel anything in their way, get away with screwing over creative people, and then lobby for draconian Internet censorship laws in your name.

And what do you get out of the deal? Well, if you somehow manage to retain control of your copyright monopoly, you can use it to stop other people from downloading your work, remixing it, using it in something else, or doing pretty much anything unless they pay you. Or so goes the story.

You probably can’t, though.

The legal costs of enforcing your copyright monopoly are astronomical, and only the big corporations are usually able to take advantage of it. And there are some things that are so widespread — like downloading your work without paying for it — that not even big corporations with all their resources can stop.

The big lie of the copyright monopoly is that it can make any dent whatsoever in social mores.  Some people may download your work for free — but they’ll also pay you if they like you.  Some people may plagiarize your work — but the Internet makes it easier than ever to expose them and laugh them out of the room.  Some people may take your work, and remix it into something that expresses a political opinion you disagree with — but sometimes we can’t control how people interpret our work anyway.

Nobody really thinks about who the rightsholder is on anything in these situations. They just worry about who the author is, and they act accordingly.

You do have a choice aside from signing your work away to the copyright industry.

Think about how workers around the world have struggled against exploitative corporations for over a century.  They united.  Band together with your fellow artists, help each other create and promote your work, and use Creative Commons Zero to completely obliterate your monopoly so that nobody can take it away from you.

(note: don’t use other CC licenses; these still use copyright, so you can still have your work signed away)

If you’re upset with the way people are using or obtaining your work, then instead of using a byzantine legal system, you’d have a much better time trying to change cultural norms and social mores.  After all, you’re an artist.  You’ve got a natural talent for communicating and moving people.

Nobody needs the copyright monopoly except for giant corporations. The “protections” it offers creative people are thin and unreliable at best, at a cost of propping up a system of exploitation.

Image by sling@flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0).  Written while listening to Bruckner.

44 Responses

    • yer kidding right?

      what an idiot! surrender your copyright so anyone can use your music without permission for anything like promoting racism, violence, political candidates, etc? use your music to celebrate the abuse and rape of women and there’s nothing you can say about because you gave up those rights… oh, and creative commons licenses are poorly written and are irrevocable, so if you change your mind, yer skewed.

      This who post is probably the most idiotic illogical and irrational piece ever published on DMN, unless of course someone has an agenda in profiting from getting musicians to give up their copyrights… hmmmmm… smells like the new boss…

  1. David

    Founder of Plankhead – how appropriate.

    Anyone who uses the phrase ‘copyright monopoly’ just shows their incapacity for anything resembling thought.

    Does anyone have a monopoly of copyright? No.

    Does anyone have a monopoly in the supply of their own work? Yes, everyone does. And in principle it would be possible for everyone to supply their own work on contractual terms which ensured, if rigorously enforced, that they obtained the full economic value of their work, including any subsequent copies of that work. In practice, securing the value of the work purely by contractual means would be extremely cumbersome and inefficient; hence the need for copyright law. But the basic principle that everyone has an exclusive right to sell their own work – i.e. has a monopoly in it – is fundamental to a free society. The only alternative, if you think about it, is a slave economy. Which is what ‘Plankhead’ and his like wish to impose on artists.

    • Anonymous

      Like most readers, I’ve tried to figure out why Paul Resnikoff posts all these stories by child-porn proponents and pirates.

      This may be the answer: I think he feels that a news site should report both sides in a conflict.

      And that is correct.

      But he forgets that we don’t have two sides in a conflict here: We just have a group of criminals — pirates & pedophiles — and their victims.

      And there’s no need for news sites to report the excuses thieves and child rapists make for themselves and their crimes. Excuses are not relevant for the victims, and they are not relevant for society.

      Pirates, pedophiles and other illegal groups have constructed unions and organizations through out history, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are simply common criminals.

  2. DJones

    “declaring a monopoly on an idea”
    “and trade away a monopoly right on ideas”

    There is NO copyright on ideas. Only specific expressions of ideas are copyrightable.

    Why are you writting about something you don’t understand?

    • Anonymous

      “There is NO copyright on ideas”

      Could you please stop posting facts!

      We’re discussing dreams & paranoia here.

  3. agraham999

    The stupidity of this is astronomical.

    If I take a photo I create a copyright. If I post that photo online anywhere I still own my copyright. No corporation owns it or can take it from me unless I give the rights away. This is the same for music, video, writing, etc.

    This is sophomoric drivel.

    “Copyright is more like a monopoly than property”

    What does this even mean? None of the situations described in the article above can happen without the consent of an artist. If you sign away your rights in exchange for a check that’s not any different that any other business transaction.

    Here’s the most important thing to remember that shows the idiocy of the folks who argue this.

    The idea is that we should abolish copyright, primarily because they object to media companies enforcing it. But copyright in this age is more important than ever for average citizens. Every photo, video, or idea you write online is protected by copyright. Without those rights you are at the mercy of technology companies who could claim ownership of everything you post to their services. This simplified idea that it is only big media that copyright protects is silly.

    “If you’re upset with the way people are using or obtaining your work, then instead of using a byzantine legal system, you’d have a much better time trying to change cultural norms and social mores.”

    Wrought…good luck with that.

  4. Anonymous

    @GGG, I agree but right now the big talk on the Hill (and some here at DMN) is the opposite. The move by the major publishers to pull out from the consent decrees and compulsory licensing is precisely a move to allow major publishers to mirror the actions of their major label cousins to hold up services for extortion compensation in exchange for licensing their compositions (and the crime of it all will be that the average songwriter, just like the average performing artist today, will be left out of the majority of the compensation because it’ll no doubt take the form of equity positions, renewing advances, revenue guarantees, etc.).

  5. Mak

    Seriously, does anyone read this and actually consider he knows the first thing about copyright? Wow, really lame.

    “Some people may download your work for free — but they’ll also pay you if they like you…”

    Dude obviously has an agenda. Downloading something is not the problem. Free distribution is the problem and is the main violation of copyright laws. Yet, he never mentions any of the criminal distributors that are profiting off other’s copyrights.


    • PlayFare

      Don’t insult hippies, we’ve got nothing to do with this horse shit.

    • FarePlay

      Yes, it is time for musicians, authors, filmmakers, etc. to get together and show solidarity.

  6. Anonymous

    We are monitoring you
    Any suspicious behavior will be reported
    Our copyright is above your rights
    You have no rights

  7. Richard Stallman

    The Right to Read

    For Dan Halbert, the road to Tycho began in college—when Lissa Lenz asked to borrow his computer. Hers had broken down, and unless she could borrow another, she would fail her midterm project. There was no one she dared ask, except Dan.

    This put Dan in a dilemma. He had to help her—but if he lent her his computer, she might read his books. Aside from the fact that you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books, the very idea shocked him at first. Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong—something that only pirates would do.

    And there wasn’t much chance that the SPA—the Software Protection Authority—would fail to catch him. In his software class, Dan had learned that each book had a copyright monitor that reported when and where it was read, and by whom, to Central Licensing. (They used this information to catch reading pirates, but also to sell personal interest profiles to retailers.) The next time his computer was networked, Central Licensing would find out. He, as computer owner, would receive the harshest punishment—for not taking pains to prevent the crime.

    Of course, Lissa did not necessarily intend to read his books. She might want the computer only to write her midterm. But Dan knew she came from a middle-class family and could hardly afford the tuition, let alone her reading fees. Reading his books might be the only way she could graduate. He understood this situation; he himself had had to borrow to pay for all the research papers he read. (Ten percent of those fees went to the researchers who wrote the papers; since Dan aimed for an academic career, he could hope that his own research papers, if frequently referenced, would bring in enough to repay this loan.)

    Later on, Dan would learn there was a time when anyone could go to the library and read journal articles, and even books, without having to pay. There were independent scholars who read thousands of pages without government library grants. But in the 1990s, both commercial and nonprofit journal publishers had begun charging fees for access. By 2047, libraries offering free public access to scholarly literature were a dim memory.

    There were ways, of course, to get around the SPA and Central Licensing. They were themselves illegal. Dan had had a classmate in software, Frank Martucci, who had obtained an illicit debugging tool, and used it to skip over the copyright monitor code when reading books. But he had told too many friends about it, and one of them turned him in to the SPA for a reward (students deep in debt were easily tempted into betrayal). In 2047, Frank was in prison, not for pirate reading, but for possessing a debugger.

    Dan would later learn that there was a time when anyone could have debugging tools. There were even free debugging tools available on CD or downloadable over the net. But ordinary users started using them to bypass copyright monitors, and eventually a judge ruled that this had become their principal use in actual practice. This meant they were illegal; the debuggers’ developers were sent to prison.

    Programmers still needed debugging tools, of course, but debugger vendors in 2047 distributed numbered copies only, and only to officially licensed and bonded programmers. The debugger Dan used in software class was kept behind a special firewall so that it could be used only for class exercises.

    It was also possible to bypass the copyright monitors by installing a modified system kernel. Dan would eventually find out about the free kernels, even entire free operating systems, that had existed around the turn of the century. But not only were they illegal, like debuggers—you could not install one if you had one, without knowing your computer’s root password. And neither the FBI nor Microsoft Support would tell you that.

    Dan concluded that he couldn’t simply lend Lissa his computer. But he couldn’t refuse to help her, because he loved her. Every chance to speak with her filled him with delight. And that she chose him to ask for help, that could mean she loved him too.

    Dan resolved the dilemma by doing something even more unthinkable—he lent her the computer, and told her his password. This way, if Lissa read his books, Central Licensing would think he was reading them. It was still a crime, but the SPA would not automatically find out about it. They would only find out if Lissa reported him.

    Of course, if the school ever found out that he had given Lissa his own password, it would be curtains for both of them as students, regardless of what she had used it for. School policy was that any interference with their means of monitoring students’ computer use was grounds for disciplinary action. It didn’t matter whether you did anything harmful—the offense was making it hard for the administrators to check on you. They assumed this meant you were doing something else forbidden, and they did not need to know what it was.

    Students were not usually expelled for this—not directly. Instead they were banned from the school computer systems, and would inevitably fail all their classes.

    Later, Dan would learn that this kind of university policy started only in the 1980s, when university students in large numbers began using computers. Previously, universities maintained a different approach to student discipline; they punished activities that were harmful, not those that merely raised suspicion.

    Lissa did not report Dan to the SPA. His decision to help her led to their marriage, and also led them to question what they had been taught about piracy as children. The couple began reading about the history of copyright, about the Soviet Union and its restrictions on copying, and even the original United States Constitution. They moved to Luna, where they found others who had likewise gravitated away from the long arm of the SPA. When the Tycho Uprising began in 2062, the universal right to read soon became one of its central aims.

    Author’s Note

    [This note has been updated several times since the first publication of the story.]

    The right to read is a battle being fought today. Although it may take 50 years for our present way of life to fade into obscurity, most of the specific laws and practices described above have already been proposed; many have been enacted into law in the US and elsewhere. In the US, the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) established the legal basis to restrict the reading and lending of computerized books (and other works as well). The European Union imposed similar restrictions in a 2001 copyright directive. In France, under the DADVSI law adopted in 2006, mere possession of a copy of DeCSS, the free program to decrypt video on a DVD, is a crime.

    In 2001, Disney-funded Senator Hollings proposed a bill called the SSSCA that would require every new computer to have mandatory copy-restriction facilities that the user cannot bypass. Following the Clipper chip and similar US government key-escrow proposals, this shows a long-term trend: computer systems are increasingly set up to give absentees with clout control over the people actually using the computer system. The SSSCA was later renamed to the unpronounceable CBDTPA, which was glossed as the “Consume But Don’t Try Programming Act”.

    The Republicans took control of the US senate shortly thereafter. They are less tied to Hollywood than the Democrats, so they did not press these proposals. Now that the Democrats are back in control, the danger is once again higher.

    In 2001 the US began attempting to use the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) treaty to impose the same rules on all the countries in the Western Hemisphere. The FTAA is one of the so-called free trade treaties, which are actually designed to give business increased power over democratic governments; imposing laws like the DMCA is typical of this spirit. The FTAA was effectively killed by Lula, President of Brazil, who rejected the DMCA requirement and others.

    Since then, the US has imposed similar requirements on countries such as Australia and Mexico through bilateral “free trade” agreements, and on countries such as Costa Rica through another treaty, CAFTA. Ecuador’s President Correa refused to sign a “free trade” agreement with the US, but I’ve heard Ecuador had adopted something like the DMCA in 2003.

    One of the ideas in the story was not proposed in reality until 2002. This is the idea that the FBI and Microsoft will keep the root passwords for your personal computers, and not let you have them.

    The proponents of this scheme have given it names such as “trusted computing” and “Palladium”. We call it “treacherous computing” because the effect is to make your computer obey companies even to the extent of disobeying and defying you. This was implemented in 2007 as part of Windows Vista; we expect Apple to do something similar. In this scheme, it is the manufacturer that keeps the secret code, but the FBI would have little trouble getting it.

    What Microsoft keeps is not exactly a password in the traditional sense; no person ever types it on a terminal. Rather, it is a signature and encryption key that corresponds to a second key stored in your computer. This enables Microsoft, and potentially any web sites that cooperate with Microsoft, the ultimate control over what the user can do on his own computer.

    Vista also gives Microsoft additional powers; for instance, Microsoft can forcibly install upgrades, and it can order all machines running Vista to refuse to run a certain device driver. The main purpose of Vista’s many restrictions is to impose DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) that users can’t overcome. The threat of DRM is why we have established the Defective by Design campaign.

    When this story was first written, the SPA was threatening small Internet service providers, demanding they permit the SPA to monitor all users. Most ISPs surrendered when threatened, because they cannot afford to fight back in court. One ISP, Community ConneXion in Oakland, California, refused the demand and was actually sued. The SPA later dropped the suit, but obtained the DMCA, which gave them the power they sought.

    The SPA, which actually stands for Software Publishers Association, has been replaced in its police-like role by the Business Software Alliance. The BSA is not, today, an official police force; unofficially, it acts like one. Using methods reminiscent of the erstwhile Soviet Union, it invites people to inform on their coworkers and friends. A BSA terror campaign in Argentina in 2001 made slightly veiled threats that people sharing software would be raped.

    The university security policies described above are not imaginary. For example, a computer at one Chicago-area university displayed this message upon login:

    This system is for the use of authorized users only. Individuals using this computer system without authority or in the excess of their authority are subject to having all their activities on this system monitored and recorded by system personnel. In the course of monitoring individuals improperly using this system or in the course of system maintenance, the activities of authorized user may also be monitored. Anyone using this system expressly consents to such monitoring and is advised that if such monitoring reveals possible evidence of illegal activity or violation of University regulations system personnel may provide the evidence of such monitoring to University authorities and/or law enforcement officials.

    This is an interesting approach to the Fourth Amendment: pressure most everyone to agree, in advance, to waive their rights under it.
    Bad News

    The battle for the right to read is already in progress, The enemy is organized, while we are not, so it is going against us. Here are articles about bad things that have happened since the original publication of this article.

    Today’s commercial ebooks abolish readers’ traditional freedoms.
    A “biology textbook” web site that you can access only by signing a contract not to lend it to anyone else, which the publisher can revoke at will.
    Electronic Publishing: An article about distribution of books in electronic form, and copyright issues affecting the right to read a copy.
    Books inside Computers: Software to control who can read books and documents on a PC.

    If we want to stop the bad news and create some good news, we need to organize and fight. The FSF’s Defective by Design campaign has made a start — subscribe to the campaign’s mailing list to lend a hand. And join the FSF to help fund our work.

    This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

    • Dan

      What a crock of horseshit. Fuck off you rambling little freetard

  8. Dan

    Is DMN turning into Torrentfreak now?

    Dear Zacqary Adam Green – what an absolutely load of clichéd bollocks you wrote.

    Copyright is essential to try and protect my work from being stolen on a massive scale. The fact that you and your pirate mates think nothing of stealing my life’s work without care doesn’t make you an anti-copyright freedom fighter – it makes you a thief.

    The only thing stopping massive corporations from stealing my work is that they actually respect the law. If it wasn’t for copyright you can bet your bottom dollar that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google would just take my work and make a shit load of cash from it and I’d see nothing – is that what you freetards want?

    “Think about how workers around the world have struggled against exploitative corporations for over a century. They united.”

    Yes they did – they stopped big companies from exploiting them and stealing their work – they in fact created a copyright on their labour so that if the corporations used it they had to pay.

    “Band together with your fellow artists, help each other create and promote your work, and use Creative Commons Zero to completely obliterate your monopoly so that nobody can take it away from you.”

    Right and when the supermarket takes love as payment this hippy crap will also work. The only people taking anything away from us is you and every other thieving pirate scum. If we obliterated you and your ilk then our livelihoods would see a lot of improvement.

    “Some people may download your work for free — but they’ll also pay you if they like you.” What absolute tosh – Pirates never pay for anything. Shoplifters don’t go back to stores saying “I liked that coat I stole – here you are here’s a dollar”. They can pay me if they like me – there are lots of legal ways for them to pay me – they can even sample my music for free if they want. Trouble is Pirates don’t want that – they want a million dollar collection for free and you say they may give me a tiny tip if they feel so generous? Wow – thanks!

    “If you’re upset with the way people are using or obtaining your work, then instead of using a byzantine legal system, you’d have a much better time trying to change cultural norms and social mores.” Theft is not a cultural norm, it’s theft. It’s illegal, and it hurts the very people you claim to want to support.

    • Emaitch

      Well said, Dan. The whole point of copyright has always been to protect artists and incentivize the creation of works for the betterment of society. For Zacq to claim that corporations are the bad guys when he and his motley peers are the ones undermining artists’ protections is complete BS. Artists use their protections to build their careers. Without them, they have no hope of sustaining themselves, much less succeeding.

  9. burnin down the house

    “use Creative Commons Zero to completely obliterate your monopoly so that nobody can take it away from you”

    Going to do this right away, just after I burn my house down so no one can steal it from me.

  10. It's Me

    Wow folks, this writer is an idiot. That is all. . . . ..

  11. john

    dear writer of this, you suck. everything you say in this is a lie. good luck suing anyone who illegally uses your work with creative commons paperwork. if you don’t copyright your music you open yourself up to being RAPED by corporations, nothing more nothing less…

  12. Gerson

    O que me parece é que os comentáristas aqui não entenderam a mensagem que o autor do artigo está querendo passar…

    • Anonymous

      I frankly don’t care what pirates and pedophiles have to say…

  13. Wurd

    Nice link bait Paul. Could you please just publish some pictures or descriptions of a trip to the bathroom instead?

    I think ZacQuary here should turn over whatever means of making an income he has to the pirate party too and let us know how that goes before he starts telling those of who actually do make money from our copyrights how we should give them away.

    It’s clear that this pirate turd is not talented or ambitious or lucky or clever or whatever enough to make money off of a copyright and therefore thinks no one should


  14. SXDMG

    Obviously Dr. Dre has a monopoly on something; I doubt that he actually designed–wrote the code for that music service or provided the technology for those headphones. . .I could be wrong now !

  15. Anonymous

    Copyright is the biggest obstacle to providing the sum of human knowledge and culture to all of humanity.

    • Anonymous

      Um, on the contrary.

      Music, art, literature and technological innovation have been very successful in countries with strong IP laws ever since the first printed word — and significantly less successful in areas with less IP legislation/enforcement.

      Today, our global economy is primarily based on immaterial rights, and I can assure you they’re here to stay. :)

      • Anonymous

        Unfortunately AmeriKKKa has the highest rates of piracy in the world.

  16. Tom Green

    yeah, yeah, yada yada. In getting on for 30 years now, I’ve been signing contracts with all these supposedly nasty people, assigning my publishing etc, to everyone’s satisfaction and agreement. In return, I’ve earned a considerable amount of money, enough to carry on being a musician/composer, and not stuff shelves for a living. Without these people, I very much doubt I’d have earned anything at all. At no point has any of them ‘ripped me off’, or prevented releases, or anything remotely like that. I write the music, they sell it, we all make money.

    I’ve also allowed some work out there as Creative Commons. None of it’s earned a penny, and if I put all my work out there as CC, I’d definitely be stuffing shelves.

    I rest my case.

    • Anonymous

      “I write the music, they sell it, we all make money”

      You mean… there’s no conspiracy? No evil monopoly? No black helicopters?

      How very disappointing.

  17. tom dissonance

    Creative Commons is just hippy copyright. the same thing with a smiley face. Silicon Valley snake oil.