A recent article on The Guardian tells us that novelist Francis Spufford has penned an unauthorized sequel to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series that may never see the light of publication, which is sparking a small flurry of debate about copyright. “Frankly,” one contributor opines, “copyright law [is] a bit of a mess. Much of the legislation dates from when making copies involved onerous labour with a printing press. Computers have utterly changed that.” Another day, another appeal to the Internet as a total game-changer?
The rights of artists and intellectuals to their work has been debated for as long as there has been art and intellect, although the widespread use of the printing press forced the creation of legislation. The late 1400s saw rights granted to certain publishers to print books, but it was not until the 1700s that laws worked more in the favor of writers with the Statute of Anne in England, a law that was soon imitated by other nations. This also created the realm of the “public domain” since copyrights had a set expiration. Intellectual property law today is a vast realm that encompasses copyright, patents, trademarks, and a variety of infringement possibilities.
The invention of the Internet makes the sharing of copyrighted materials in ways that do not materially benefit copyright holders very easy, especially in less regulated countries like Russia. Book publishers have found it nearly impossible to prevent PDF file sharing, and American film studios have sunk a great deal of money into legal and technical departments that limit their movies from spreading like viruses through the World Wide Web. All of which leads to that early clarion cry of hacker dens, that “Information wants to be free.”
Of course this is true, in a sense. Writers want their work to be read. Photographers want their pictures to be seen. Speakers want their talks to be heard. But these makers also want the capability to profit from their work. Even Socrates, who shamed the avaricious Sophists by dispensing his home-spun wisdom for free to anyone who would accept it, suggested to the jurors at his capital trial that he should be rewarded for his service with free meals at the Pyrtaneum in perpetuity. Does not the Scripture say, “The labourer is worthy of his reward”?
Somewhere there is a common-sense mean between the extremes of lawless intellectual property Marxism and the undying mills of corporate copyright extensions. Should not an artist be permitted to support his family with bequeathments of intellectual property, at least for one generation? The reductio ad absurdum arguments against passing intellectual property to one’s heirs lose their force when the laws keep their time limits, and when corporate interests do not bulldoze the law.
The aforementioned commentator also writes, “But should we have to obtain permission from, and pay fees to, Shakespeare’s or Euripides’ heirs before staging performances of Hamlet or The Bacchae?” It certainly is unfortunate that Disney’s corporate interests have warped copyright law into something many now wish to trash entirely, and the way many corporations suckered artists out of their own intellectual rights with “work for hire” clauses has allowed these companies to profit massively with toy sales and film adaptations while the creators die in relative poverty. Corporations increasingly hold copyrights and trademarks on intellectual works of all types—think not only of screenplays but of mechanical patents and search algorithms—and the luckiest workers are the ones with a 401(k).
Which leads to the deeper question: What moral rights do people hold over the intellectual and artistic works they create? Long ago such works were considered to be more or less common property, part of the tradition of a certain people. Artisans, teachers, and advisers were to be paid for their labor, but the fruit and imitation of their labor were not easy to hold in check. What they achieved most was honor and glory, not monetization, but even honor can be sullied with cheap imitations, clumsy adaptations, and false claims of authorship.
Think of the fake sequel to Don Quixote that Cervantes had to acknowledge and dishonor before he could get on with his own volume. Think of the many poor film or television adaptations of novels that have hurt book sales. Think of the endless debates over the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, which either sully or glorify his memory. Think of how a Narnia sequel could ruin the world and “feel” of the original; Neil Gaiman once wrote a short unofficial sequel which attempted to do just that. A philosopher who isn’t Ayn Rand would rather be cleared of the charge of writing bad philosophy than make a just percentage of a book’s proceeds, although all things considered he would prefer both.
I offer no particular solution, here. I am not suggesting we idolize the “poor, starving artist” as a symbol of moral purity and cultural magnanimity. I am not recommending we dismantle all corporations which thrive on gobbling up an endless stream of intellectual properties… but it is rather sickening to see superhero franchises basically print their own money while the original creators and their heirs are offered pittances to disappear from public view. We need a moral theology of creator rights and responsibilities, and I don’t think many Catholic thinkers have bothered to put much effort into considering these things in depth.