The Most Important Fact Academics and The Copyleft Neglect to Mention: Copyright is Optional.

This started as a quick response to a piece that Paul Resnikoff ran on his excellent Digital Music News blog.   I realized later that I really had a more general point to address.  There is a large contingent of people in the Copyleft (especially academics) that don’t seem to realize that eliminating copyright actually reduces choices and empowers rich and powerful corporations. 


A few years ago I had the pleasure of seeing comedian Patton Oswalt at my wife’s venerable DIY/indie music venue The 40 Watt club.

Patton opened with an apology to the largely liberal academic and college students in audience.

“I want to sincerely apologize for my opposition to gay marriage, I realize I may have offended many of you. But no one told me  gay marriage wasn’t mandatory”.

This is what is so incredibly stupid about the copyright debate. The tech lobby has created an army of ignorant academics, tech public policy apparatchiks and paid bloggers that seem to not understand that copyright is not mandatory.  Anyone is free to enter into a creative commons like licensing agreement or even just give away their music by fiat if they chose.  The hybrid/sharing economy is here and it’s thriving.

In fact that is what I do with some of my repertoire.  Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven have had a Grateful Dead inspired taping/sharing policy since our inception in the the early 1980’s.  We have thousands of live tracks on the internet music archives I unequivocally support an artist’s right to monetize his/her songs however they see fit. Or not to monetize those songs.

Eliminating Copyright protections does not increase choice by artists but limits them.  It does the opposite. We would no longer be able to choose how we monetize songs.  We could not chose with whom we do business. Eliminating copyright is mandatory collectivization, it’s closer to something that totalitarian regimes impose than the kind of free choice we provide in our democratic societies.

If this had been the public policy in the 1950’s and 1960’s the mafia connected Morris Levy wouldn’t have even had to buy those R&B singers the occasional Cadillac. He could have paid them nothing.  Most of the digital shysters arguing that they they want to “help” artists by “promoting” their music and paying them nothing are making the exact same arguments that Morris Levy made to artists in the 1950s and 1960’s when artists came to him asking for money.

Those calling for the abolition of copyright protections would simply be allowing multinational corporations like Universal Music, Google, Apple and BitTorrent  to exploit artists without little or no compensation.   It would make the most exploitative practices of the old music business look like childs play.

While it may seem revolutionary to many academics and bloggers to sit behind a computer and post invectives against copyright and the major record labels it’s not. It’s actually a regressive pro-corporate activity.  The truth is the rights of millions of individual artists (not record labels) would be destroyed in the process.  While mostly large multinational corporations would benefit.

The ideals of western civilization are ultimately designed to protect the rights of the weak, poor and powerless against the strong rich and powerful.  It may seem stupid in this age of cynicism and greed to measure policies against the fundamental principles of western civilization.  But it is not.  Especially if you believe in leaving behind a better and fairer world. If academics and intellectuals have time and energy for “fair trade” coffee isn’t it hypocritical that they don’t want to ensure that artists (the vast majority of which are in the developing world) are also fairly compensated and not exploited?

In an age when we are obsessed with advancing the rights of formerly persecuted minorities  and generally making the world a kinder place.  It is startling to see so many people arguing to make the world less fair and less civilized place for the milions of individual artists on the planet.  I can’t help but wondering if these generally progressive academics and intellectuals have really thought through their opposition to copyright.

3 thoughts on “The Most Important Fact Academics and The Copyleft Neglect to Mention: Copyright is Optional.

  1. Great article, very important points. I remember when I first started as a musician my keyboard player was a big copy left guy. This was before the Internet, btw, but certainly none of us were strangers to copying cassettes or recording songs off the radio. I bacame an avis music downloader as soon as it was possible, which also spurred my greatest album-buying period of my life. I wanted the artifact, and I wanted to reward good artists and record labels. There were certainly albums I downloaded and never bought, but those were also ones that I generally listened to only occasionally. Anyway, I started to understand the point my keyboard player was making. Not having copyright, or not caring about it, did not prevent me from rewarding great musicians and I started leaning to his ideas a lot more. Over time, it seems to have become just accepted wisdom among “the left” and the hardcore music collectors I know, that piracy is pretty much a-okay. And many have joined in the copyleft movement.

    However nobody ever quite explained to me how copyleft allows us musicians to get paid fairly. And you guys on this blog are making great points about how the majors (both labels and related industries) are really benefiting, while the less powerful keep struggling.

    I completely agree that while it seems nice and egalitarian copyleft ultimately limits our choices. I am a big supporter of Creative Commons, and, yes, what is wonderful about this all is that it gives us choices.

    Thank you for being such a reasonable voice in this debate, and laying things out so clearly and regularly.

    And thank you for Camper Van Beethoven. I never paid for any of your music, but I blame that in part on not being able to find albums when I was really into it: circa ’92. I did record everything my favorite deejay would play on the radio of yours. 🙂 hey, that was 20 years ago, so it’s past the statute of limitations, right? 🙂

  2. Does the business side of the music business need to be explained to the current rash of newbies? If so, continue to do it before there is no business left. Copyright and BMI and ASCAP and BUG MUSIC were the backbone of the radio/venue music industry. Arena rock and music festivals were the transition and today’s YouTube and internet are the explosion. But the basic idea is still the same. The artist owns the rights and an organization collects the money. Fair pay is only possible if the business is healthy.

  3. the bizarre, abject absurdity of claiming that my time and effort is of no value, on the one hand, while simultaneously enjoying the benefit of my time and effort, simply falls apart in the face of any rational argument. Tell you what, folks… how about you come and… hmmm.. clean my house, fix my car, grow some food for my in my back yard (YOU do the work… I’LL eat it) … etc etc … and for your time and effort, I will give you … NOTHING, at best… scorn, and derision, more likely … sounds just fine, eh? … The BOTTOM LINE here is… there will BE NO MUSIC if people don’t get paid… just like there will be no vegetables in the store if the farmers don’t get paid. There is no difference in the equation. Time and effort requires renumeration commiserate with the quality/desirability of what is produced… if no one WANTS it… fine … but wanting it for FREE is childish nonsense at best, or, absurd/astonishingly STUPID, or most likely … vile, duplicious, greed on the part of those trumpeting such absurd nonsense the loudest. May all their penises fall off before their psychopathic seed is passed on to another generation!

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