Let's Reform Copyright. With A Sledgehammer. Into Smithereens.

There are many ways we could reform the copyright monopoly to solve some of its problems. This is politically doable. But long-term, we really just need to abolish this thing altogether.

One of the better attempts at solving the problems with the copyright monopoly has been Creative Commons. Creative Commons does great work in encouraging creative people to think differently about the copyright monopoly, and about what other people are allowed to do with their work. Unfortunately, there’s one big problem. Here’s an infographic to sum it up:
A Handy Guide To Creative Commons: Every license only works if you can afford to sue somebody

This is the problem with any law based on the copyright monopoly: it only protects people who can afford to file a lawsuit. If you have the money, if you have the time, and if you have the will to go through a process that often takes years of stress and silliness, then you get to enjoy the benefits of the monopoly. Otherwise, it’s a joke.

For all the wonderful conversations that Creative Commons has started, I remain convinced that the only license they’ve put out that’s actually useful is CC0: the one that releases your entire work into the public domain. I love CC0, actually. I’ve found it to be a very effective anti-piracy technique; it literally makes it physically impossible for people to do anything illegal with my work.

But unless you’re a big corporation (or a very wealthy individual), your experience with a copyright-based license won’t be any different than just putting your work into the public domain. You will be completely at the mercy of other people, choosing whether or not to be a dick to you. If your work is in the public domain, then a person who downloads your work, enjoys the hell out of it, and doesn’t donate a cent to you despite being able to afford it…that person is a dick. Knowingly using your public domain song in a hit TV show, and not offering to share any of its massive profits? Dick move. Reselling your work without crediting you? Dick dick dick dick dickety dick.

Being a dick does not have to be illegal. In fact, most attempts to make dickishness illegal cause so much collateral damage to civil liberties that it’s not even worth it.

But couldn’t we extend the benefits of the copyright monopoly to even the starvingest of the starving artist by reforming the legal system? What if filing a lawsuit weren’t so expensive, so time-consuming, and so inaccessible?

Well, first of all, I’d ask you how in the hell you planned to do that. But maybe we shouldn’t be democratizing the ability to sue each other. Maybe it’s a good thing that filing and going through with a lawsuit is such a stupid, bureaucratic, soul-sucking process: because filing a lawsuit is a pretty stupid way of resolving disputes. This slow, arduous legal system makes it so much more attractive for us to attempt to talk to each other, instead of crying to the state to bring down its hammer on people we don’t like. Settling lawsuits out of court is supposed to be attractive.

And that about sums up why we ought to do away with the copyright monopoly entirely. It encourages us not to talk to each other. Why not just let the etiquette of accessing and re-using works of art emerge naturally from human beings interacting? Why create legal weapons to threaten each other with, instead of just acting like adults and talking?

We never talk anymore, humanity. You never return my calls.


  1. passstab

    i agree with the conclusion but i don’t really like this argument, if Disney wanted to literally break into my house, they probably could get away with it. i can’t afford to take on there lawyers
    this does not mean the laws that try to stop them are unreasonable, they effectively serve two purposes
    first they stop people with the same level of income or lower from committing the crime and second they
    make it socially unacceptable for everyone to break the law (more socially unacceptable then if it were legal)

    i’m glad to an article supporting complete abolition on this site, it’s not a possibility that pirates consider enough, but this logic is weak

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      I’m eager to hear your stronger argument. Please share a better way to convince the world that abolition is the answer so I can start saying that one instead. That would be very helpful.

      1. passstab

        1 copyright is censorship
        2 copyright allows /unnecessary/ lawsuits (very close to your argument, the difference between breaking into my house and infringing my copyright is that i am being harmed in the latter case, nobody hurts me when they copy my art)

        1. Zacqary Adam Green

          Well that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

          I mean, it’s my opinion too, but that’s the problem with moral arguments. It’s possible to disagree with them and not be wrong. Copyright is censorship? Suing people over copying is unnecessary? “No it’s not.” Bam, argument refuted.

          This is why I’ve been trying to focus on the pragmatic problems with copyright. Namely, that it doesn’t work.

      2. passstab

        so how does this argument not work for breaking into my house?

        1. Zacqary Adam Green

          Chill, bro. Nobody’s breaking into your house.

          Burglaries tend to be handled by police investigations and criminal cases, though, not lawsuits. Whether that’s due to the law, or due to the fact that a bunch of governments decided that home invasion was a much larger threat to society than people plagiarizing stuff, depends on how many anthropology books you’ve read.

  2. Bogwitch

    Interesting post – see #ccml13 on Twitter (right now!) to see how the industry want to STRENGTHEN their hold over copyright.

  3. Argure

    Unfortunately, the majority of Europe does not recognize the ‘public domain’, rendering a public domain dedication effectively moot.

    1. Kevin Granade

      Which is why CC0 is not just a Public Domain dedication, in areas where that is not valid, it falls back to being “just” an incredibly permissive license.

  4. Anonymous

    Great points Zachary!

  5. basser

    I agree that moral arguments are pointless, but then again calling the commercial reuse of public domain works without credit or compensation a dick (or cunt, presumably) move is pointless, and it will happen, lots. Which is ok, as we might as well go all the way with this freedom thing. Human creations belong no more to their creator than a ripe delicious fig belongs to the tree.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      Moral arguments aren’t pointless. They’re good at reinforcing people who already agree with you. They’re what a culture uses to protect its status quo. Same with shaming people who disrupt the status quo. Like, tipping at a restaurant, for example. In the US, where waitstaff are paid under minimum wage and are supposed to make it up in tips, you’re well within your right not to tip. But you’re an asshole if you don’t.

      Obviously it should work somewhat differently with the arts. If you like something, AND can afford to send the creator some money, you might as well.

    2. streamfortyseven

      But the fig tree belongs to the person who planted it, fertilized it, pruned it, and took care of it. Figs are the end result of the labor, and belong to the person who performed the labor.

      1. harveyed

        Sure. In the case of fruits, you can’t just copy them without any extra labor but that is possible to do with computer files. If people like the copies, then it will likely increase the value for them that you are able to do more labor on creating new work for them. The computer files are not naturally limited in supply as the figs are.

        Copying is free commercials for your (future) labor of creating new originals.

    3. Ninja

      “Human creations belong no more to their creator than a ripe delicious fig belongs to the tree.”

      And as much as birds “using” the figs for free feeding helps the plant reproduce and spread such creations can be used in the same way. Money comes naturally if you sell your scarcities.

  6. Kevin Granade

    I disagree that the less permissive licenses are useless. Personally I think NC and ND are counter-productive, but the rest at least communicate what you want out of it, so that those who feel like not being dicks will know what to do to make you happy. With CC0, if you want recognition or to encourage use of your chosen license, there isn’t even that.

    In other words, we’re talking about different populations, one population is going to ignore your wishes no matter which license you use (so why worry about them?), but the other population will respect your wishes if you just tell them, these are the people your license is intended for.

    You also seem to discount the level of risk-aversion present in most corporate environments, where the company as a whole might not care overly much about respecting licenses, but violating one may well be worth someone’s job (or a raise, or a stern talking to, or staying late after work to clean up the mess), which will provide some modicum of influence.

    1. Kristof Van Tomme

      Totally agree with you Kevin, I do like getting attribution why would I need to give it up in 100% of cases, just because I can’t enforce it some of the time…

  7. Luther

    If you still want another argument against copyright and patents, here’s mine:

    1. There’s no evidence that copyright or patent monopolies generally help society.
    2. They kill creativity by preventing us from building on the work of others.
    3. They kill property rights by giving other people control over what we supposedly own.

    IMO, anyone who supports such monopolies either has serious misconceptions about economics, or they’re being selfish at everyone else’s expense.

  8. Anon

    I had no idea that the CC0 license existed, and I expect that’s the case with a lot of other people using CC licenses, which get promoted much more. One example is that deviantART (inb4 shitty website) doesn’t even allow you to pick CC0, whereas the other licenses are built right into the art submission form. In saying that though (or writing I guess), I just noticed the footer which says all the text on this site is CC0.

  9. Josh Woodward

    I’m not sure I buy into the idea that unenforceability should affect licensing decisions. The vast majority of the little people are going to want to support your work and do what you ask. The vast majority of the giant people are very conscious of copyright law and tend to be follow the letter of the license even more.

    As an artist, I feel I should have the ability to decide the parameters under which people should use my music. I’ve chosen CC Attribution because I want my music to be used very freely, but I want to make sure I get something out of the deal. Very few people ignore this, and it’s been an insanely great boost to my career as an artist.

  10. Anonymous

    it’s the approach the entertainment industries use to uphold copyright and to punish those it says are breaking their rules, so why not have the same approach to dismantle copyright? best idea i’ve seen yet!!

  11. LaPoing

    This is just silly and shows how little the author of the article knows about copyright. As a creator one doesn’t have to sue the guilty party, ones performing rights society does it for you. Thats one of the advantages of being in such an organisation.
    And even if one is npt part of such an organisation there are plenty of lawyers who can help if they get a percentage of the sum awarded after successfully suing the offender

    1. harveyed


      So the artists should view their fans as criminals and take parts of the money they get from the fans and pay lawyers to try and put those same fans into prison or try and make them broke.

      For some reason you don’t quite manage to convince me why the fans would accept artists who behave like that…

      1. LaPoing

        Harveyed its not about suing fans but about suing those who make money using the creators work without his permission.
        But and thats a big but. If somebody does something illegal to someone, it doesnt matter if he’s a fan or not to that someone. The law is the law.
        Your argument is a bit like this guy stole from Walmart but Walmart shouldn’t press charges as he’s a regular Walmart-customer.

        1. Bob

          You’re failing to distinguish physical property and government-granted intellectual monopolies (NOT property). Please take your false arguments elsewhere. Thanks, Everybody else.

    2. Zacqary Adam Green

      Out of curiosity, have you ever tried to sue anybody?

    3. frank87

      Those lawyers and organisations get most of the money the artist worked for. Money extracted from the available budget for artists.
      “Lost sales” is money still available for paying artists.

  12. Ano Nymous

    I think people will be reluctant to donate small amounts. Now, with Bitcoin and everything, it is easy and safe to donate any amount, but I still doubt that small donations are going to happen very often.

    People will feel like dicks if they donate, say 0.001 BTC (todays value, in the “10 cent” order of magnitude), so instead, they don’t donate anything. That, by any logically thinking person’s standards, of course means they are more dick-y than if they did donate that mBTC, but one thing that I have learned is that most people are not very skilled in logical thinking… That propably goes for both receivers and senders of donations.

    I have seen lots of messages pointing to this at least being true on the senders’ side – in proximity to donation buttons, addresses and the like it often says “all donations are welcome, no matter how small”.

    There’s a Swedish saying, “Många bäckar små, bildar en stor å”, it’s a bit hard to translate, as the division into words for different shapes and sizes of water flows are not the same, but approximately: “Many small creeks make a large river”.

    1. harveyed

      You could turn it into a social thing. Make tables and graphs showing your cultural investment for last week/month/year and link you to other co-financers. To make it cool to be an active investor of culture and not just a passive consumer. Because it IS a lot cooler to be able to say “I co-financed this” than to just say “I bought a copy”.

      It also shows responsibility that you really care that the money ends up in the right guys pockets and doesn’t just drift off on the way to some middle-men.

      1. Ano Nymous

        The anti-privacy way? I don’t like it. It creates even more social pressure to join those spy networks. And then it shows to even more people that someone only pays a small sum. That will only worsen the problem. In fact I think that’s a really bad idea. So it’s most likely going to happen, as most things that I think are very bad ideas do.

    2. Corwin

      You’re supposed to count in satoshis, not whole btc.

      1. Ano Nymous

        For this particular subject, or everywhere? The most common I have seen is BTC, but if you mean in this case, you’re right. 100 000 Satoshi sounds like more than 0.001 BTC, even though it’s the same.

  13. streamfortyseven

    You assume that creative commons licenses are uneconomical to enforce, being dependent on copyright. That’s not the case at all.

    The first step is to send a “cease and desist” letter to the infringer. That takes half an hour to compose and six dollars to mail – certified, return receipt requested.

    If that doesn’t do the trick, then you can sue for triple damages, court costs and attorneys fees. Most infringers will settle out of court, even big media companies, because in the end, it’s a lot cheaper that way, especially if you’ve got them red-handed. Having in-house counsel devote long hours to a potentially losing case is a waste of money, it’s a lot cheaper for the infringer to license your work by negotiating with you.

    1. Corwin

      Rotf, lmao. Go tell that to the guy who actually wrote and drew Finding Nemo, and got screwed out-of-court by the difference of orders of magnitude of lawyer price between him and Disney.

      In order: Some guy wrote and drew a children’s book.
      That got totally riped off to make Finding Nemo.
      He sued and lost, because Disney/Pixar lawyers successfully agued i was derivative enough, because the original clownfish was a slightly different shade of orange.

      It’s not just being able to afford to sue. It’s also being able to afford to win.

  14. Anarchisty Kropotkinaja

    I think it would be easier to destroy the state than to force the state to reform copyright law. States are designed to hold and give monopoly rights, thats the way they are gaining power over the people.

    The Monopoly on Force, The Monopoly on Money (Only one accepted state owned currency), The Monopoly on Law, The Monopoly on Copyright. If you are taking away the monopoly from the state, you will actualy destroy the state. So the state defend its monopolyies with all power it has against thoose who are threatening thease monopolies.

    Destroying the Copyright monopoly and other monoplies ist indeed an anarchist act of Revolution against the state.

    1. Zacqary Adam Green

      The thing I’ve always found interesting about anarchism is where the line gets drawn. At what point does a state become a state? If a state writes free enough laws, or laws that are common sense enough that people generally just agree with them anyway, does it cease to be a state?

      Maybe the state is like pornography. You can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

    2. Zacqary Adam Green

      The thing I’ve always found interesting about anarchism is where the line gets drawn. At what point does a state become a state? If a state writes free enough laws, or laws that are common sense enough that people generally just agree with them anyway, does it cease to be a state?

      Maybe the state is like pornography. You can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

      1. Anarchisty Kropotkinaja

        I dont think there is such a line, its more a gradient wich ranges from the totalitarian state to total anarchism. So there are many points between the two systems at wich society could be. And society is not a single point within this cordinate system, ist more a cloud cause each society has wings wich tend to be more or lesse Libertarian or anti libertarian.

        The Society will become more anarchist if most of its members move to the freedom side. this can also happen within a state.

  15. […] Let’s Reform Copyright. With A Sledgehammer. Into Smithereens. […]

  16. Ivan

    That the state’s tool of choice for dispute resolution is so painfully broken, expensive and soulsucking; so that people would rather settle disputes between themselves than use it, should tell us something about the state trying to fix things.

  17. Gilles LAMIRAL

    I wrote and maintain a work under a license called NOLIMIT.
    I consider CC0 is too long and too complicated to read and understand by normal people, non-lawyers. NOLIMIT is simple, the text is “No limit to do anything with this work and this license.”
    I do earn my living with this work, imapsync, I even consider myself annuitant, I can stop all other paid works and still live well.
    I’ve learn something from this economic model. No matter the license, people who do not want to pay do not pay; people that can pay do pay if you offer them the opportunity to pay. That’s all. No matter the license. And I do get congratulations, thanks, recognition for my work etc.
    It’s just because most people are not sharks, they are like you and me. Not sharks and lazy to search copies.

  18. picsishouldshare

    Let’s have a handier guide to CC :


    Some can afford to sue, but everyone can afford to show what a great guy you are.

    Says the not so great guy in the comments. Yes, I know that.

  19. […] Adam Green came up with this handy guide to Creative Commons for his article on copyright reform. Funny as it may seem, it is a very practical and straight-to-the-point analysis of the licenses, […]

  20. […] Let’s Reform Copyright. With A Sledgehammer. Into Smithereens. […]

  21. Timwi

    Zac… Have you ever had your work copied and “rebranded”? Had someone else pass your work off as theirs and perhaps even try to /sell/ it? If you did, you would not be proposing this.

    How would you feel if I created a new blog containing pretty much all the same articles from this one, written by you, but claiming them to be mine and asking for donations for the “hard work”?

    I am on the same page as you with copyright: copying and reediting must be free. However, CC0 (and public domain) enables *plagiarism*, the passing off of someone else’s work as your own. I do not believe that arguing for the legitimization of plagiarism will win you anywhere as many supporters as you could if your argument were only to remove copyright but keep plagiarism illegal.

  22. ntegr8

    you know, to add to this discussion…i once offered to help a dj/producer get allll of his files off the net, so that people couldnt pirate his work…(big fan) and he said ” NO NO NO!!!!, those are fans too….and they help spread my popularity….and get my music out there” these artists know this too…nuff said…and yeah, if i like something i end up buying the actual copy…my very first copy of unreal tournament was given to me in rars for my birthday from an underground buddy, i have now purchased…almost every actual copy of that game on pc, and every other console ive owned….based off that download…ISNT THIS TRUTH ENOUGH???? !!

  23. Matt Kuhns

    This proposal might be more attractive if bundled with an equally radical reconfiguring of the economy as a whole, such that “how will I afford food/shelter/medicine/etc if people aren’t required to pay for my creative work” ceases to be a relevant question because (whether through basic income, or some alternative scheme) EVERYONE has access to these things regardless of how much money they can tease out of the absurd system we have now.

    After all, one of the fundamental arguments for abolishing copyright is that resource scarcity isn’t an intrinsic issue with intellectual property… and automation is rapidly making the scarcity of services and manufactured goods nearly as artificial as copyright monopolies.

    If you’re thinking big, think real big.

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  25. […] Let’s Reform Copyright. With A Sledgehammer. Into Smithereens. […]

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