But what about where that isn't the case? If I "subscribe" to the movie Casablanca then what realistically are the makers going to do with it (that wasn't horribly degrading the original product)? Perhaps some sort of discussion group or trivia about the movie, but these are things we can already get for free?
Moving away from intellectual property from corporations for a moment - how about the fruits of individual labours?
The work I do today I am paid for in a months time. Whether or not my work produces utility beyond this point or not is besides the point, the exchange is made. I may stay at my work for one month or for ten years - my pay will still be on a month by month basis. This is of course because I am a salaried employee.
For others, it is not the same. For others, work pays today and tomorrow. And beyond.
Recently, a campaign involving Cliff Richard and others asked the government to extend the period of copyright on musical performances. A BBC article outlines the issue :
Currently, performers in the UK can receive payments for 50 years, at which point their work goes out of copyright. But Sir Cliff says they should be given the same rights as songwriters, who get royalties for life plus 70 years.
"It seems to me we should ask for parity," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "It doesn't seem just."
According to the singer, many musicians recording in the 1950s rely on their copyright payments as a pension.
"It seems terribly wrong that 50 years on they lose everything from it."
This to me is very interesting. Leaving aside the parity issue, what is suggested here is that people deserve remuneration for labours performed over fifty years ago.
But should this apply to other workers? Should the builders of a house receive a small sum every year for every house they built which remains standing? Should the designer of a bridge receive a penny for every hundred people who walk across it? If not, why not? Well, arguably :
1. Musicians are different from bricklayers because they are using some creative gift which morally should stand on a separate level from mere construction.
2. Musicians are different from bricklayers because the product they contribute towards retains it's utility value (i.e. the enjoyment derived from the recording) indefinitely, whereas houses require continuous maintenance.
3. Musicians are different because they have arranged their affairs so as to rely on such royalty income in place of a pension.
Of these, I should find arguments three least satisfying of all. I have no pension arranged but I appreciate this is idiocy on my behalf and that the world owes me no favours because of my miscalculation. Presumably (if it was considered at all) most musicians didn't (if they had the option) factor in living much past seventy and as such they suffer from the same problems as the rest of Western Europe. Of course if particular individuals should fall into hardships then of course the welfare state should be there to support them.
The first argument is stronger, but I'm not really sure that it can rationally be defended. Why should a man who works with his mind be significantly advantaged when compared to a man who works with his hands? Or alternately, if I happen to be born with musical talent then why should my rewards continue for many decades beyond my labour when a midwife receives no additional payments beyond her labour (no pun intended). Should a surgeon receive a tithe from every patient he saves in perpetuity?
Which brings us to the second argument - a stronger restating of the first point. If the public continues to gain "value" from a musical work, then why should people not pay for this right? Well, while my views are fairly clear on this subject, the debate does seem to consistently divide people.
I would say, quite bluntly - no they deserve no special status. The world does not owe you a living. No-one demanded you become a musician, and if after all your efforts you can find no-one to pay you for them then why should you expect payment? Once again, I will re-emphasise that I would not see anyone fall into hardship and I would always encourage assistance to be given to those who require it. But why should we have special laws enacted to restrict the actions of others (i.e. copyright) simply because people made little provision for their futures?
My own view is quite simply that creative endeavours (however noble) should not be privileged in law. In defence of this view I should say the following.
- I am not here referring to contractual agreement between an artist and company, or worker employee. If your employer says he will pay you a certain sum every month for the next twenty years (instead of paying you up front for your work) then this is a private matter between yourselves. Similarly, arrangements between software supplier and it's customers are not more or less "wicked" if they involve regular maintenance costs. What I am opposing here is the idea that morally such labour should be privileged (and by extension, such privilege should be defended by law and ultimately by violence).
- Creative acts are undertaken by all manner of salaried staff. The contributions I have made to my own companies systems will not last for decades, but would certainly contribute "value" should I leave tomorrow. Despite this, it does not seem that I should expect special payment for this, simply because my work was of a particular kind. If musicians should expect moneys for decades then in motion pictures what of set-designers, costume designers, make-up artists and others in movies? Do they not contribute to the "value" of a movie? Again, I am not referring to contractual agreements but what we should like to see enshrined in statute.
That copyright extension campaigns should arise now is not a coincidence and is linked into many other debates on the use of intellectual property in a digital age but also the general pensions crisis faced by most of Western Europe. People are living longer which in turn is outstripping pensions and other savings. Musicians mainly recording in their twenties or thirties may not have considered that they would live past seventy or eighty, but this is increasingly a possibility. They're not alone. Many thousands of others will not have much (if anything) to supplement whatever state income they have at 65 and beyond. We shall all be in the same boat.
There are numerous policies out there supposed to remedy these problems, it is hard to know whether they will ever be soluble while we persist with individual financial destinies and top-heavy demographic structures. Many of them (like raising the retirement age) seem to be either delaying the inevitable or simply unworkable.
If however, the legal position of "content holders" retains (or gains) additional privileges and protections then it would massively increase the drive towards self-employment (already a strong position due to taxation). Conversely, for employers there would be large advantages to retain salaried employees and to enthusiastically contribute towards FOSS projects. Or, in another sense : what will happen when the choice is between free amateur YouTube-esque video (the standards of which will improve enormously over the coming decades) and a Hollywood blockbuster for which you have to pay ever time you watch it? I'm pretty sure I know what I'd pick. For those who think "amateur" efforts will never rival their professional counterparts then I would like you to examine the newspaper circulation figures (some of which in London at least actually reprint people's blogs!).
To finish off, if you'll indulge me the following quote:
What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers.
- Karl Marx
Marx was referring here to proletarians, the final stages of which is arguably in development today with the great transformation of the Indian and Chinese economies. But could it not be considered here too? Perhaps not capitalism but certainly are not the gravediggers of profitability the open content produced directly as a result of these fruits of capitalism (i.e. dissemation of PCs, cheap powerful camcorders, etc).
Hyperbole? Sure. But it's worth thinking about and I think Dr Marx would certainly approve.