Copyright does not correspond to social expectations – and likewise, many laws are entirely arbitrary

The whole article is good, and you can read the whole thing at the link below, but this part really stands out:


Who will pay for intellectual works that are easily copied over the Internet, and why? I think the strongest component will be voluntary payment, a.k.a. patronage, and it’s already much more common than generally admitted. The core distinction is the following:

  • People will pay after “consuming” (listening, reading, watching, playing) a work if they decide “this is great, I want to reward the author and/or encourage similar future works.”
  • People will not pay (or only tiny amounts) before consuming a work they don’t know, by an author they don’t know, just because it happens to be on offer and they have some time to waste.

This is not how 20th century store shelves worked, but it’s indeed the historical normal which has only been upset for a couple of centuries, and it’s now reasserting itself thanks to the Internet.

Let’s begin with a brief historical review of publishing and copyright.

Traditional Situation

Copyright is a recent legal artifice invented centuries after the printing press. Unlike most other laws it has no basis in natural social expectations or traditional behavioral codes. Before copyright any published work was simply public, and its further dissemination did not require approval by the original author. The Romans would have laughed at the notion that they needed Caesar’s permission to copy his Commentarii de Bello Gallico. Common decency required only to not misrepresent the author or his work.

How did creators get paid then? As Daniel Lemire notes in the linked post, writers simply did not expect to get paid and often still don’t. They write for publicity or out of desire to communicate. (Hey, this blog is free!) Artists creating physical artifacts such as sculptures and paintings could sell those, of course. Generally, though, creative professionals were paid only to create new works for some specific client and occasion. Other sources of income included staging performances, teaching students, or finding a benevolent patron of the arts, all of which required a good reputation.

So the traditional artist was obliged to manage his own career and create a solid body of work before he could begin earning serious money. Considering the vast legacy of European culture before the gradual introduction of copyright in the 18th century, this doesn’t seem to have worked out too badly.

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