I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine, an up and coming film maker, on the subject of copyrights. I've discussed this before but I've been thinking about it some more.
He asked me a question which I really had to think about. It was "don't you think that artists deserve to be paid for their work". I had to really think about this and I surprised myself with the answer, which was no, I don't.
I came to the conclusion that actually no one "deserves" to be paid as such and that whatever money you make comes from you doing something that people want to pay you for. This is generalising, but from my point of view you do what you can to make a living, and then you do what you want to do. Sometimes those are the same two things but no one deserves for them to be. Perhaps I'm just bitter as I find my job in corporate IT uninspiring compared to song-writing or performing (though in some ways, much easier). But I've never felt like I deserve to be paid for doing what I really want to do. I've certainly never felt that I need a system of law enforcement to prevent people from behaving like people (i.e. sharing, mimicking and altering the things they love)
The refrain we hear repeated over and over is that copyright protects the income of creators and allows them to keep on creating but the system itself actually benefits publishers the most. And if we look at the history of copyright law, it is all bundled up with printing presses and the rise to dominance of the publisher over the scribe.
A scribe is a kind of artist, creating unique products, works of serious labour. Publishing is not art and published output may be a copy of art, but there is nothing unique to it. It is one of many identical physical units. This is the business model that led to copyright. It was never about the artist, it was about the publisher asserting their right to be the sole source of these units, something an artist does not have to do.
If copyright existed to help artists, it should really protect the artist from those seeking to financially benefit from their work (i.e. the publishers). And this is really evident in the music industry where labels will front up cash for a new act as a loan, the band having to then tour and tour to make back the money they owe. If this is what a band has to do to get noticed, why do they need a record label to own them for this period? If record labels suddenly went away, would musicians stop making music and playing gigs? If musicians were guaranteed to never make money for their music would that be the end of music?
The music recording industry, as it is now, is an entity that did not exist before the 20th century. It had a run of about 50 years where it was able to produce a physical medium for transporting and listening to recorded music that consumers could not easily produce for themselves. Now that time is over and we're in a transition period. Artists need to make money, yes, and legal protection from sharks and poachers is nice to have but a system created by publishers for publishers is never going to support artists in the way that they want it to. And artists will still be artists no matter what, culture will keep growing and changing as it did before copyright, before CD sales and before MTV.
The archetype of the struggling artist didn't go away due to the existence of copyright law but the archetype of pop star is a pure 20th century concept. If we have to chose one or the other, it's worth considering which we'd prefer.