It is of absolute urgency, for the sake of saving the literary and artistic creations of our time and the future from oblivion, and for the sake of human liberty, that the whole rotten system be smashed. The argument to that effect is crystallized and made super compelling in the fifth chapter of Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrine and David Levine. The chapter is pithy, thorough, dead on in its practical analysis, and deeply radical. It is the perfect illustration of why I think this is one of the most original and compelling books on economics in a generation.
Large swaths of the literary output of the last fifty years, for example, now lie buried in the vaults of large publishers who neither print them nor permit them to be printed absent some huge fee; nor will they return rights to the author. Nor will the publishers allow them to be posted. Getting them back in print is a very expensive and time-consuming operation.
Today, serious “classical” composers have to keep returning to public domain material like folk songs to make variations on themes. The music of the 20th century is largely off limits. Meanwhile, the search for originality has created bizarre forms of music within the conservatory culture, none of which has sticking power in the culture at large because it is illegal to imitate it.
As for recording, the effort to prevent file sharing has been a disaster for artists. Again, this resulted from special-interest legislation. The tethers are so tight now that many bands are reduced to refusing any recording contracts at all, merely so that they can distribute their own music the way they want to. This has been proven again and again to be compatible with huge sales. The best selling CDs of last year were also the ones available for free download.
Whenever this subject comes up, unthinking people toss around crazy bromides. “You mean you want to allow anyone to just steal anyone’s work? Why would anyone bother to write a book or write a song.”
These kinds of questions reflect what happens to our thinking in a time of statism; we can’t imagine how freedom would work. We do not, for example, ask similar questions about other sectors.
“If you allow the private growing of vegetables, why would anyone bother to start commercial farms or open grocery stores? If you allow people to cook at home, why would anyone open a restaurant? If you allow people to just share recipes, why would anyone become a master chef? You would allow just anyone to steal the idea of a tomato or a sauce or a fancy dish that took years in culinary school to create?”
Finally, let me say this: I know that I’ve written many articles on this book and this live blog of this one chapter is long, but the truth is that I’ve barely scratched the surface here. This one chapter has far more to offer, but I’ll end for now.
One last note: do not write me with some smarty pants remark about how, if we are serious, the Mises Institute should allow anyone to publish our books. All our new works, insofar as it is possible, will be published with a Creative Commons license as a matter of signed contract with authors. As for this article, please “steal” it. That goes for anything I write. If you can sell it and make a buck, good for you. If you become a millionaire, shame on me for not thinking of it first.