Isn't It Time Artists Lost Their 18th-Century Sense Of Entitlement?

by Glyn Moody
Mar. 07, 2012

One of the common assumptions in the copyright debate is that artists are special, and that they have a right to make money from their works repeatedly, in ways not granted to "ordinary" workers like plumbers or train drivers, thanks to copyright's reach through time and space. Of course, when modern copyright was devised in the early 18th century, artists were special in the sense they were scarce; offering them special monopoly privileges "for the encouragement of learning" as the 1710 Statute of Anne puts it, therefore made sense.

But the Internet has changed everything; it has allowed hundreds of millions of people -- soon billions -- to become active creators rather than passive consumers. That, in its turn, challenges the assumption that "professional" artists are special, and deserve special treatment. One prolific creator who seems to have accepted this is Seth Godin, who featured in Techdirt at the end of last year.

In an interview for Digital Book World, he is asked the classic question about how artists can make money if they share their work freely:
Rivera: Many authors hear your message about being willing to give away their books for free, or to focus on spreading their message but their question is: ďIíve got rent to pay so how do I turn that into cash money?Ē

Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? I gave hundreds of speeches before I got paid to write one. Iíve written more than 4000 blog posts for free.

Poets donít get paid (often), but thereís no poetry shortage. The future is going to be filled with amateurs, and the truly talented and persistent will make a great living. But the days of journeyman writers who make a good living by the word -- over.
As he notes, although he is a hugely-successful author and speaker today, and hence presumably well paid for both, he started out by giving away stuff -- lots of it. It was only after he had established his value in the market through that free content that he was able to to start asking to be paid for future work. In other words, just because he was a great writer and lecturer didn't mean he had an entitlement to be paid from the start; he had to prove he was worth paying before people did so. And even then, they paid not for what he had done, but what he would do -- just as you pay a plumber or train driver.

Some might dismiss Godin as an outlier, or a provocateur saying outrageous things in order to whip up a little publicity for himself and his projects (and he probably is, to a certain extent.) But as Matthew Ingram pointed out in a piece analyzing the same Godin interview, Godin is not alone. Here's Francis Ford Coppola expressing much the same views a year ago:
This idea of Metallica or some rock ní roll singer being rich, thatís not necessarily going to happen anymore. Because, as we enter into a new age, maybe art will be free. Maybe the students are right. They should be able to download music and movies. Iím going to be shot for saying this. But who said art has to cost money? And therefore, who says artists have to make money?
That's not to say artists shouldn't make money from their work in some way, just that the long-held assumption that artists must be paid directly for everything they do, again and again, and even after they are dead, because they are "special", simply isn't true any more -- assuming it ever was.

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