The Supposed “Plight” of Artists is Not a Good Justification For Bad Policy

Every once and a while, Cory Doctorow writes a piece that perfectly expresses what I’ve been thinking. Today, he has a great essay up at the Guardian that starts by contextualizing the plight of artists with regards to piracy:

“Virtually everyone with a solution to the copyright wars is worried about the income of artists, while I’m worried about the health of the internet… Oh, sure, I worry about the income of artists, too, but that’s a secondary concern. After all, practically everyone who ever set out to earn a living from the arts has failed – indeed, a substantial portion of those who try end up losing money in the bargain. That’s nothing to do with the internet: the arts are a terrible business, one where the majority of the income accrues to a statistically insignificant fraction of practitioners – a lopsided long tail with a very fat head. I happen to be one of the extremely lucky lotto winners in this strange and improbable field – I support my family with creative work – but I’m not parochial enough to think that my destiny and the destiny of my fellow 0.0000000000000000001 percenters are the real issue here….What is the real issue here? Put simply, it’s the health of the internet.” (link to full essay)

Doctorow later concludes his essay with a classic quote from Heinlein:

“‘There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.'”

I simply could not agree more. And in fact, I want to take this argument a bit further.

In my mind, artists are special for two reasons. First, for how utterly common they are. People love to be creative. Art is one of the primary human activities. And the reason people practice art and creativity in such large numbers is because doing so is fun and fulfilling. In short, art is its own reward. This truth implies that the primary justification for copyright—namely, that it incentivizes creativity—is completely bankrupt. With today’s access to tools, if you can’t be inspired to create—lf you can’t find the time and energy to make something unless you have a guarantee of a government-backed monopoly protecting you—then I’m sorry, but you’re just not a real artist.

Second, artistic success is, and has always been, very rare. Cory is absolutely right about the .0000000000000000000001 percent. The notion that we should bend over backwards to protect such a small minority from unfavorable technological change (change which isn’t really even unfavorable, since truly talented artists are still doing just fine) is absolutely insane. What about all of the other far more common professions that are being automated away by technology? What about the cashiers and truck drivers that are just about to be made obsolete? Last I checked, their numbers dwarf the number of working artists. Should we ban automatic checkout machines? Or self-driving cars? Of course we shouldn’t. Reflexively banning technologies that harm employment would be silly. But such silly measures would  arguably make more sense than some of the internet-harming proposals designed to “protect artists.”

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