The Magazine

Free Use and Abuse

The pitfalls, and potential, of copyright.

Mar 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 24 • By SONNY BUNCH
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To secure the author’s property in his copy, or his to whom he has transferred it, no book, pamphlet, portraiture or paper printed with the name of the author or publisher upon it shall within [blank] years after its first edition be reprinted with or without the name of the author to it without authority given in writing by the author.

Locke suggested that the blank be filled with the life of the author, plus another “50 or 70 years.”

James Madison, writing in Federalist 43, was similarly clear on this topic: “The utility of [copyrights and patents] will scarcely be questioned,” he wrote. “The copyright of authors has been solemnly adjudged, in Great Britain, to be a right of common law. The right to useful inventions seems with equal reason to belong to the inventors.” This is the only mention of the Copyright Clause in the Federalist Papers, suggesting that there was not very much contention on this point.

That an author has the right to do with his work as he pleases seems fairly obvious. This does not necessarily mean, however, that he has a right to profit from that work. Were I to release a spoken word album about the plight of aboriginal peoples, and price it at $100 a copy, I imagine it would sell poorly. At the same time, thieves should not be free to download the album gratis and enjoy the deep thinking contained within simply because they think the price too high.

Don’t tell that to the Millennials and their enablers, though: The digital generation has decided that content is theirs for the taking, creator-rights be damned. Why subscribe to HBO when you can download its original programming for nothing? Why contribute to Justin Bieber’s income when you can get his music for free from a bit torrent? Why visit the multiplex when you can (illicitly) watch new releases with the click of a button?

By ignoring the moral component of copyright—by telling content creators (and yes, the media corporations that employ them) that it’s no big deal if young people steal music, books, movies, and television shows because “they probably wouldn’t have bought it anyway” or “you’ll make it up when they attend your concert/buy your DVD collection”—we are working diligently toward creating a world in which there is little content, and the content that is produced is of meager quality.

So yes, let’s figure out how we can reinvigorate the public domain, and ensure that fair use is defended. But let’s do it in a way that doesn’t trample on the rights of those who actually create what we consume.

Sonny Bunch is managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon.