In the country of the free…

Wendy Grossman responds to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s ‘ideas’ piece on copyright in the The Atlantic with a firm rebuttal.

Image: Image from Sita Sings the Blues by Nina Paley CC-BY-SA 3.0

About a year and a half ago, I suddenly noticed that The Atlantic was posting a steady stream of interesting articles to Twitter (@theatlantic) and realized it was time to re-subscribe. In fact, I would argue that the magazine is doing a lot of what Wired used to do in its digital coverage.

I don't, overall, regret it. But this month's issue is severely marred by this gem, from Elizabeth Wurtzel (the woman who got famous for taking Prozac and writing about it):

Of the Founders' genius ideas, few trump intellectual-property rights. At a time when Barbary pirates still concerned them, the Framers penned an intellectual-property clause--the world's first constitutional protection for copyrights and patents. In so doing, they spawned Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Motown, and so on. Today, we foolishly flirt with undoing that. In a future where all art is free (the future as pined for by Internet pirates and Creative Commons zealots), books, songs, and films would still get made. But with nobody paying for them, they'd be terrible. Only people who do lousy work do it for free.

Wurtzel's piece, entitled "Charge for Your Ideas", is part of a larger section on innovative ideas; other than hers, most of them are at least reasonable suggestions. I hate to make the editors happy by giving additional attention to something that should have been scrapped, but still: there are so many errors in that one short paragraph that need rebuttal.

Very, very few people - the filmmaker Nina Paley being the only one who springs rapidly to mind (do check out her fabulous film Sita Sings the Blues) - actually want to do away with copyright. And even most of those would like to be paid for their work. Paley turned Sita over to her audience to distribute freely because the deals she was being offered by distributors were so terrible and demanded so much lock-in that she thought she could do better. And she has, including fees for TV and theatrical showings and sales of DVDs and other items. More important from her perspective, she's built an audience for the film that it probably never would have found through traditional channels and that will support and appreciate her future work. As so many of us have said, obscurity is a bigger threat to most artists than loss of revenues.

Neither Creative Commons, nor its founder, Larry Lessig, nor the Open Rights Group, nor the Electronic Frontier Foundation, nor anyone else I can think of among digital rights campaigners has ever said that copyright should be abolished. The Pirate Party, probably the most radical among politically active groups pushing for copyright reform, wants to cut it way back, true - but not to abolish it. Even free software diehard Richard Stallman finds copyright useful as a way of blocking people from placing restrictions on free software.

Creative Commons' purpose in life is to make it easy for anyone who creates online content to attach to it a simple, easy-to-understand license that makes clear what rights to the content are reserved and which are available. One of those licenses blocks all uses without permission; others allow modification, redistribution, or commercial use, or require attribution.

Wurtzel fails to grasp that one may wish to reform something without wishing to terminate its existence. It was radical to campaign for copyright reform 20 years ago; today even the British government agrees copyright reform is needed (though we may all disagree about the extent and form that reform should take).

The Framers did not invent copyright. It was that pesky country they left, Britain, that enacted the first copyright law, the Statute of Anne, in 1710. We will, however, allow the "first constitutional" bit to stand. That still does not mean that the copyright status of Mickey Mouse should dictate national law.

As for pirates - the seafaring kind, not the evil downloader with broadband - they are far from obsolete. In fact, piracy is on the increase, and 1 major concern to both governments and shipping businesses. In May, the New York Times highlighted the growing problem of Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa.

Her final claim, that "Only people who do lousy work do it for free" was the one that got me enraged enough to write this. It's an insult to every volunteer, every generous podcaster, every veteran artist who blogs to teach others, every beginning artist finding their voice, every intern, and every person who has a passion for something and pursues it for love, whether they're an athlete in an unpopular sport or an amateur musician who plays only for his friends because he doesn't want his relationship with music to be damaged by making it his job. It is certainly true that much of what we imagine is "free" is paid for in other ways: bloggers whose blogs are part of the output their employer pays for, free/open source software writers who like the credit and stature their contributions give them, and so on. But imagine the miserable, miserly, misanthropic society we'd be living in if her claim were true? We'd need that Prozac.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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