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Why Copyright Is Bad for Musicians

by Ben Sommer | July 21, 2012

Copyright is dying – that is obvious to everyone. What isn’t obvious to everyone, especially in the music industry, is what a glorious and just outcome this is.

International copyright only came into being in 1891 – very recent considering the long history of music and the arts. And it was publishers – not artists – who convinced governments to foist the system on us. Prior to that, during monarchical times "copyright" was permission granted to writers by the king to print what was politically correct. As Jeffrey Tucker made clear, it was government that introduced the entire concept of "idea ownership" – the basis of copyrights and patents – precisely so it could crush the ideas it didn’t like. Copyright has rotten origins.

What is Scarcity?

We must first understand what property is, since copyright is based on the notion that ideas are property.

Property begins with one’s ownership of one’s body, and extends to all the resources one acquires through

  1. Trade (i.e. buying and selling)
  2. Manual labor (i.e. creation)
  3. Homesteading (aka "squatting" on a resource no one had yet claimed)

This can mean simply the clothes on your back, or a small ranch house in the suburbs on a quarter acre or, like Bill Gates, a 40% share in a $70 billion company. They’re all property.

The one thing all physical property has in common is scarcity. Dirt, houses, livestock animals, software companies – they’re all made up of physical matter that is in limited supply. How limited is relative – obviously a pound of dirt is much less scarce than a huge software company. That’s why their market prices are so different. But there’s a reason that, for example, air and light are free: they are not scarce at all and require no human labor to produce.

Scarcity is not some esoteric concept – its at the core of most economic theories. Economists and law philosophers write about it and its role in prices, competition, entrepreneurship and a host of other areas. Scarcity a basic reality of existence in human society. Stephen Kinsella has produced perhaps the greatest work in recent times lancing the idea of scarcity in context of intellectual property.

So Why is it Evil?

Now consider ideas and artistic works. A CD recording of a performance is obviously a scarce physical commodity – it takes resource and labor to record and manufacture. But that’s not why CDs used to cost $20+ back in the 1990s. They cost that much because of the copyrighted sounds – that is, ideas – imprinted on the discs. This is also why most CDs these days cost around $10 – because copyright is in the latter stages of decay, due to competition from other media. The cost of a CD is falling back toward the actual cost (plus markup) of the scarce, plastic piece of physical property that it is.

But the law these days still says that the CD contents – the ideas imprinted on it – are copyrighted. This essentially means that the CD is not wholly your property, like a pound of dirt, or a painting, or a company is if you own these things. Copyright puts you the CD owner in a bizarre circumstance where the original publisher retains some ownership of your CD even after you’ve paid your $10-20 for it.

But the musical ideas on the CD are not scarce. If I share the ideas with my friends by playing them the CD, the original owner hasn’t lost his own copy of them. I haven’t "stolen" anything from him. Like air and water molecules, the sound waves that make up a musical performance are in such great supply that no one is made poorer if they are replicated ad infinitum.

Therefore, musical ideas in their raw form of pure sound – fail the test of true property. They therefore cannot be "owned", and sharing them or even re-selling copies of them in different media cannot be considered theft or fraud. It may still be illegal to do so, but that only makes copyright one of the thousands of illegitimate sausage laws that clog the statutes and unjustly limit our liberty. And as we’ve seen in the last 15 years, the only way to sustain copyright enforcement in an era of disruptive technology is to erect a large and oppressive government apparatus.

This is why the institution of copyright is evil – it thwarts true law (property and ownership), and requires jackboot tactics to enforce.

So What’s a Musician To Do?

So if modern copyright is only 121 years old, how on earth did Bach, Beethoven & Brahms survive and thrive without it?

Its easy to understand – just look around you now.

The music industry today is going back to the future – like Beethoven artists are now surviving by hustling the old fashioned way: boot-strapping public performances and touring. Or, like Bach, they’re subsidizing their song-writing passion by taking side-jobs at the local church or school. Of course, they’re also getting creative and using today’s amazing technology to implement the business models like Connect-With-Fans+Reason-To-Buy.

Can musicians sit back and collect royalties and a share of the huge monopoly profits of yesteryear? Nope. But those were the days of the golden handcuffs and the chosen few. The only artists who whine and complain now about those "good old" days are either

  1. Old artists who came up in the old days and are wistful of the time when they only had to record an album every three years to earn 5 times what earn now, or
  2. Young artists who are too lazy to boot-strap things themselves and wish success was handed to them

But as Seth Godin has proved, these days you have to choose yourself to make your own success.

I encourage musicians to read up more on this topic – all you need to do is google "against copyright" and similar terms to begin the journey to a more common-sense philosophy on this subject that is so close to musician’s hearts and wallets.

July 21, 2012

Ben Sommer [send him mail] blogs at http://bensommer.com.

Copyright © 2012 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.

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"the original owner hasn’t

"the original owner hasn’t lost his own copy of them. I haven’t "stolen" anything from him." You are not a commercial premise and therefore do not need permission or a license to play music to your friends, since you yourself are not profitting from playing the song. Distributing licensed music to your friends is different however. You never stole anything, but you are refusing the artist's right to profit from their labour. He is not 'made poorer', but you have refused him the right to 'become richer' from his own labour. Even Paul agrees we should have the rights to the fruits of our labour (probably just took that out of context!). Its theft of opportunity!

Ron Paul is a

Ron Paul is a Constitutionalist - copyright is in the constitution - ergo he supports it. I care not what is in the constitution - as I say in the article, being an approved legal rule says nothing about a law's justness.


This articles argument is deeply flawed. CD's were not over priced in the 90's because of copyright laws. They were over priced because the record companies thought that they could charge more for "superior sound quality." They also created a huge bubble in the music industry at that time by not selling singles any more so people had to buy the whole cd for $18 when all they really wanted was one song. That's how these albums sold over 10 million copies. Now they're crying about there losses.

As a musician/songwriter myself, I find it insulting for someone to say you can't claim ownership of those songs that you wrote or that album of songs that you created. Creating music is not like taking a piss. It takes years of honing your skills and there is a huge struggle making ends meet while you do that.

Albums are for songwriters/musicians as books are for authors. It creates passive income which allows you to live off of your work and continue to create more work.

If your curious about a new artist, download some stuff or stream it online. If you find yourself liking what you hear, support the artist buy buying there album.

Copyright did not cause CD prices to rise

but rather the greed of the middle people. Copyright had nothing to do with that matter. This discussion is NOT that simple. And if you think performance can now make up for all loss otherwise through, what you claim as 'copyright', then you are at a loss of awareness.

It comes down to technology and the mere convenience of lazy people and stupid gov't. What you left out is books, printed matter, and movies. You blamed CD cost's. Also software programs, blueprints, games, educational course materials. The list can go on and on.

Number 2's picture


That video is awesome. Zappa makes mincemeat out of the fake conservatives!

Thank you.

how on earth did Bach,

how on earth did Bach, Beethoven & Brahms survive and thrive without it?

Wow, apples to oranges.

They survived because there was no such thing as the internet and cd's to steal their WORK. You actually had to pay to go see them play instead of doing a youtube search to hear their music.

Like Tom Woods says, the libertarian moochers just want free stuff on the backs of someone elses labor to which they did nothing to obtain.

There has Got To Be More To This

I am just beginning to look into the argument against copyrights.

Is this article saying that, if there is no scarcity in the results of labor, that labor has no value? If so, how does an information worker get paid for his labor?

Why does scarcity have to be a function of ownership rights?

Using your example of music - some people are better at composing while others are better at performing. Based on the anti-copyright logic, the composer's labor has zero value because his work can be digitized. But the performer, who is benefiting from the worthless composer is entitled to a days wages for a days work.

In my case, it took me seven years of hard work to research a book, pay to conduct surveys, and pay others to edit and fact check my information. But it can be digitized so there is no value?

How about a business that hires someone to do competitive analysis of a particular industry. Is that worker entitled to payment for his compilation because the work can be digitized? How about if the business owner decides to sell the report to get back some of his money. Is he entitled to payment?

It is difficult to see how this can help the free market. Wouldn't we lose some great literature because authors would refuse to expend their research money and labor to publish anything, some of the best composers would stop writing music, and there would be no one to spend the time and money needed to publish valuable information, such as engineering charts, whistle-blower news, investigative reports, and investment information?

Gene Louis
Supporting a Needed Tool for Government Feedback:
A Citizen-Operated Legal System.

Hi Gene - I'm picking your

Hi Gene - I'm picking your comment to respond to since it seems to have the most substance (not knocking others, just can't spend all day responding to critics).

I am crazy fact is: there are more composers now then ever before in history of time, at the same time that copyright is crumbling. We can argue all day over whether this is just a coincidental correlation or if the breakdown of copyright and emergence of distruptive sharing technology caused it - but its a fact. Creators are creating and not either 1) realizing that copyright is garbage and working on a donation-for-download model + playing live + licensing (yes, licensing need not be eliminated in a post-copyright world), or 2) delusionally hanging onto the dream that copyright will lift them from obscurity, and that pirates are their true enemy.

Like I say in the article - only a handful of legacy musical acts - the chosen few - truly benefited from intellectual monopoly. I truly believe they and their pressure groups are ginning up all the outrage over anti-copyright arguments like mine.