The Copyright Monopoly Is A Scam That Hurts Artists As Much As The Public

Bottles of Snake Oil - Photo by Jagrap on Flickr

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. (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.


  1. Aelius Blythe

    Heartbreaking stories of authors struggling to get their rights back are pretty common in the writing community. Books go out of print… Publishers fail…. Series get dropped halfway through…. For any number of reasons, authors want to shop their work around for another option, or just take over themselves.

    But they can’t. They have to ask for permission to distribute their OWN work.

    In the best case scenario, reputable publishers will let them. But sometimes they don’t. And it’s not just dumb n00bs they’re taking advantage of either – even if someone’s read the fine print & signs a decent contract, it can be very difficult to regain control when they need to. And yet, industries (I highly doubt this is unique to publishing) continue to woo creators with the myth that unnecessary distribution controls are actually GOOD for them….

  2. Googla

    Zac it sounds to me that you are a few years behind everybody else in this question except maybe Falkvinge. Nowadays creators of culture have more knowledge and powerful agents and managers that actually gets them better deals or they go it alone.
    Most creators these days have their own companies and retain more rights than before.

    1. AeliusBlythe

      It would be nice if that were true across the board. But the belief that a contract = jackpot is still pervasive in creative communities. Sure more and more people are taking the entrepreneur’s path & going it alone, but the illusion still exists that winning a contract is still the better deal. And sadly, when one is “lucky” enough to get a deal on the table, many small-time and new creators simply lack the leverage to negotiate it in their favor, which is how they end up giving up their rights all the while convinced it’s for their own good.

      It’s wonderful that more and more creators are able to take things into their own hands. But for many, that powerful, pervasive industry narrative keeps them from breaking away.

    2. Zacqary Adam Green

      I have to commend you, your interpretation of my call for artists to unionize as “going it alone” is an extremely innovative use of reading comprehension. Utterly fascinating. I look forward to your TED Talk.

    3. Fred

      I bet that I know more artists and creators than you do (art, cinema, and librarian schools and video game developers are my main sources of friends), and none of them are getting the “rights retention” deals from big incumbent publishers that you are implying here. They also tend to self-destructively confuse copy rights with attribution rights, where the latter is a powerful social protection of artists that copyright law completely fails to address. If you read the third paragraph of common publisher misdeeds here, what you see is a list of violations to artists’ attribution rights, or forms of plagiarism that are made legal (even incentivised) by “creative remixes” of publisher copyrights and contract laws. Copyright law was always intended to protect publisher monopolies (for the purpose of government censorship), never artist rights.

  3. Zirgs

    And your solution is to support p2p leechers? Even Scene groups hate them.
    Current copyright law is not hurting me in the slightest.

    You and falkving do not offer me ANYTHING.

    1. asdf

      Labeling people as pirates and thieves is false, misleading, and dehumanizing, an excuse to deprive the public of their freedoms while keeping their opinion up of the very process designed to take away their rights.

    2. Zacqary Adam Green

      So then like why do you keep coming back and reading what we write?

  4. […] O monopólio dos direitos autorais é um engodo que causa danos ao artista e ao público […]

  5. Anonymous

    i think we are all aware of it, the problem is trying to actually make artists see the truth, see sense. as long as the new artist or emerging artist is offered nothing from anyone except a major studio or label, they dont have perhaps the required knowledge to proceed solo.
    even more important is to stop politicians from getting handouts from the entertainment industries. making these ‘lobbying (read bribes) donations transparent is a good start. however, because 99.9% of politicians are probably ‘on the take’, making it completely illegal will be an almost impossible task! there could, however, be severe punishments for politicians who do not openly declare their relationship with a particular person, company or industry, as their main election promise is to keep a balance, not continuously crap on the people.

  6. Zirgs

    The only people that are being harmed by current copyright laws are p2p leechers.
    I have zero sympathy for them – they don’t contribute anything to the world’s culture.

    They do not restrict my creative freedom at all + I have no desire to be an unoriginal hack and use an existing ip.
    Can’t use Batman in your story?
    No big deal – think of something original yourself.

    1. next_ghost

      Ahh, the mythical tropeless tale. The greatest successes in pursuit of complete originality are kept in the depths of library archives. Because all of them are such a boring piece of shit that only a literary scholar could be interested in actually reading them (out of perverse scientific curiosity).

    2. Zacqary Adam Green

      Actually, I wrote an article explaining how copyright law harms more than just P2P leeches. It’s called The Copyright Monopoly Is A Scam That Hurts Artists As Much As The Public. Give it a read, it might interest you.

    3. Zirgs

      I did not say anything anything about “tropeless tales”. I said that if you are talented – inability to use Mickey Mouse or Batman in your stories will not affect quality of your work in the slightest.
      And even current copyright laws allow really shitty fanfic to be written.

      No one is forced to sign a contract with big publishers.

      As you said in your own article – EVERYONE already has an option to release their work as CC0 – so where is the problem?
      Why do you want to FORCE CC0 on everybody?

      1. gurrfield

        “No one is forced to sign a contract with big publishers.”

        What would that help if the publishers aim for the sharing sites and not just the individual sharers? If the hobby sharing sites are taken down / censored, what alternatives do really exist to get your work out and find fans..?

        This is about control of the distribution channels, not about hunting pirates.

        “As you said in your own article – EVERYONE already has an option to release their work as CC0 – so where is the problem?”

        Once again – the problem is that you are shooting the messenger. It does not help to have Creative Commons if the alternative channels of distributions are censored / blocked / sued into oblivion – as we see in the UK with internet “porn filter” ( already proven to filter loads of non-porn sites ) and attempts in the Netherlands to block access to TPB. Just to mention two examples.

      2. next_ghost

        Unfortunately, copyright is much broader than that. J. K. Rowling may not need to worry about losing copyright lawsuits because Harry Potter is a billion dolar franchise. But if the financial situation was reversed (let’s say Adrian Jacobs’ Willy the Wizard was a billion dolar franchise and Rowling was still just a poor nobody), she would lose the exact same lawsuit in the blink of an eye.

        Also consider for example Watchmen. Do you think the characters there are original? There is no Batman, but Nite Owl is obvious Batman remix. All major characters in Watchmen are remixes from other comics published by DC Comics. If Watchmen was published by anybody else but DC, then DC Comics would sue it out of existence. Would the same story work well with copyright-safe characters? No way.

        1. Zirgs

          Yeah, because “My immortal” was totally sued out of existence – oh wait.

          But cmon people – it is obvious that you do not care about creators.
          All you want – is to leech stuff from torrents – that’s it.
          You don’t want to remix or anything – just download the torrent and consume.

      3. dgh

        No one is forced to sign a contract with big publishers.
        No one is forced to create.
        You create because you want.
        You sign a contract with a big publisher because they make you think it’s the only way you’ll get to publish your creation and get a cent out of your work.
        But wait, you create not because it’s your work – you’re the one who wants to create!
        If money isn’t your reason of creating, then you just do it to publish your own creation to the world.
        If you just want to publish your own work, the do so under CC0.

        …I wonder where you got stuck.

    4. Leonard Kirke

      I’d just like to point out that Batman is essentially a “ripoff” of both Zorro and The Shadow. (Not to mention the fact that there’s some strong disagreement about who actually created Batman to begin with, despite the “Batman Created by Bob Kane” credit that Kane mandated be included on every Batman story.)

      I don’t see how using a character created by someone else automatically makes them an “unoriginal hack,” either. Is Goethe, renowned as one of the greatest writers of all time, an “unoriginal hack” for recreating Christopher Marlowe’s “Faust?” Is Marlowe a hack for reusing the Faust legend created by generations of folklore?

      If the same scenario played out today, could the “hack” claim still be applied? Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” is widely regarded as one of the greatest comics of all time. If he’d written it without permission from the DC Comics corporation, would it suddenly be considered a “hacky” work instead?

      If Goethe had to create some “original” character for fear of getting sued for using Marlowe’s Faust, would it have had the name recognition to get noticed, and bring proper appreciation for his excellent writing? Would he still have been sued by the Marlowe estate?

      If Alan Moore created “The Killing Joke” using some “original” character who is “not really” the same as Batman, would the story have been noticed and appreciated?

      I think these are worthwhile questions to consider.

      1. Zenonplazmos

        Voice of reason.

        Same goes for all ancient epics form Gilgamesh, through Greek drama, to Beowulf and King Arthur. Successful fictional characters become part of the cultural map and incorporating them into one’s original work is the same as using any other cultural reference (a specific type of car a hero drives, the style of architecture of a hero’s house, the music a hero listens to etc. etc.).

        Calling writers that utilize culturally established fictional characters “hacks” speaks volumes about one’s credibility in the field of literary work. Is, say, Updike’s “Gertrude and Claudius” a fanfic from the world of Hamlet? And if so, fanfic suddenly becomes a very respectable genre indeed.

  7. Mildbeard

    Self published authors are quickly taking over the industry, and book publishers are rapidly losing market share.

    A large percentage of book authors today don’t feel threatened by pirates because they understand that it won’t hurt their sales, and could even help. (This doesn’t apply to all authors, but quite a lot of them.) But outlets like Amazon force them to engage in price fixing and will attack the author’s ownership of the work when it is openly pirated on the web. Amazon’s copyright policies are so threatening that it discourages authors from posting free writings on the web that even contain links to their paid writings.

    File sharing is not on the radar screens of self-published authors. If they can’t see something in Google, then they generally don’t care.

    Nearly all authors do take exception when someone is not just downloading their work, but selling it for money or charging fees to distribute the work without the author’s permission. This will generally result in a takedown request from even the most progressive authors.

    1. Aelius Blythe

      That’s not wrong, but I think it’s optimistic.

      I really hope to see more authors, self-pubbed and traditional, moving into the 21st century. (Like I said above, I think it’s really sad to see authors buy into the default narrative…… even the parts that are demonstrably harmful, e.g DRM) But after getting shouted down, banned, told I should have my hands cut off, and other creative proposals at even the merest suggestions that maybe, just **maybe**, file sharing isn’t the demon it’s been painted as (even if it isn’t a magic bullet either), I think the old narrative is still strong.

      Personally, I don’t necessarily oppose commercial protections ( and attribution and, to an extent derivative protections), although I use CC0 myself. But I still wish that I saw a bit more of a progressive movement from the writing community as a whole away from the opposite extreme. I won’t defend Amazon – I’ve had my share of arguments with them. In a lot of ways they’ve stepped up to fill the Big Company Taking Advantage of Authors shoes in place of the publishers. But I think a more adapted view of copyright would actually help the writing community as a whole to put the focus & pressure on the Big Company (that may actually hurt them) rather than the poor student downloading Calculus for Dummies (true story)

  8. Zirgs

    Maybe rename “Pirate party” to “Leecher party”.

    That would be more appropriate.

    Because that’s what you stand for.

    You don’t even have balls and know-how to release and crack the stuff.

    All you are capable of is to download without contributing anything back.
    You do not remix the stuff – you do not even SEEED what you download.

    1. Per "wertigon" Ekström

      You’d be surprised how much pirates contribute back to the media cartels.

      If Rick would openly suggest a 1 month boycott on both filesharing and buying, then the media cartels would feel the impact, I can assure you.

      If I download your movie from TPB, one of three things may happen:

      1. You lose a sale.
      2. You neither gain anything, nor lose anything.
      3. You gain a fan.

      Guess the ratio in between these three scenarios, on average?

      1. next_ghost

        Obvious troll is obvious. Don’t feed him.

      2. Googla

        “You’d be surprised how much pirates contribute back to the media cartels.”
        You mean spite hate and jealousy?

        “If Rick would openly suggest a 1 month boycott on both filesharing and buying, then the media cartels would feel the impact, I can assure you.”

        No that would be like 0.0000001 on the Richter Scale. Ricks fan’s neither buy hire or make films so why should that boycott have any effect whatsoever?

        1. Scary Devil Monastery

          “Ricks fan’s neither buy hire or make films so why should that boycott have any effect whatsoever?”

          Even the copyright industry has realized that the biggest single cash cow they market to are the pirates.

          Don’t let empirical fact hit you on the ass while leaving.

        2. Googla

          Scary I was talking about Ricks fans but OK you obviously think they all are pirates.
          But those “empirical facts” you talk about are quite shaky as most creators have lost more income from piracy than vice versa.

  9. Big Business – Write press release |

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  10. Stephan Kinsella

    I think you mean “wrested,” not “wrestled.”

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