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There is one group of people not shocked by the record industry's policy of suing randomly chosen file sharers: They already know what everyone else is slowly finding out: But now that the Internet has given us a world without distribution costs, it no longer makes any sense to restrict sharing in order to pay for centralized distribution.
Abandoning copyright is now not only possible, but desirable. Both artists and audiences would benefit, financially and aesthetically. In place of corporate gatekeepers determining what can and can't be distributed, a much finer-grained filtering process would allow works to spread based on their merit alone.
We would see a return to an older and richer cosmology of creativity, one in which copying and borrowing openly from others' works is simply a normal part of the creative process, a way of acknowledging one's sources and of improving on what has come before.
And the old canard that artists need copyright to earn a living would be revealed as the pretense abolish the penny essay help has always been.
None of this will happen, however, if the industry has its way. For three centuries, the publishing industry has been working very hard to obscure copyright's true origins, and to promote the myth that it was invented by writers and artists. Even today, they continue to campaign for ever stronger laws against sharing, for international treaties that compel all nations to conform to the copyright policies of the strictest, and most of all to make sure the public never asks exactly who this system is meant to help.
The reward for these efforts can be seen in the public's reaction to the file-sharing lawsuits. To read the true history of copyright is to understand just how completely this reaction plays into the industry's hands. The record companies don't really care whether they win or lose these lawsuits.
In the long run, they don't even expect to eliminate file sharing. What they're fighting for is much bigger. They're fighting to maintain a state of mind, an attitude toward creative work that says someone ought to own products of the mind, and control who can copy them. And by positioning the issue as a contest between the Beleaguered Artist, who supposedly needs copyright to pay the rent, and The Unthinking Masses, who would rather copy a song or a story off the Internet than pay a fair price, the industry has been astonishingly successful.
Yet a close look at history shows that copyright has never been a major factor in allowing creativity to flourish. Copyright is an outgrowth of the privatization of government censorship in sixteenth-century England. There was no uprising of authors suddenly demanding the right to prevent other people from copying their works; far from viewing copying as theft, authors generally regarded it as flattery.
The bulk of creative work has always depended, then and now, on a diversity of funding sources: The introduction of copyright did not change this situation.
Prohibiting people from freely sharing information serves no one's interests but the publishers'. Although the industry would like us to believe that prohibiting sharing is somehow related to enabling artists to make a living, their claim does not stand up to even mild scrutiny.
For the vast majority of artists, copyright brings no economic benefits. Not coincidentally, these stars are who the industry always holds up as examples of the benefits of copyright.
But to treat this small group as representative would be to confuse marketing with reality. Most artists' lives look nothing like theirs, and never will, under the current spoils system.
That is why the stereotype of the impoverished artist remains alive and well after three hundred years. The publishing industry's campaign to preserve copyright is waged out of pure self-interest, but it forces on us a clear choice.
The first copyright law was a censorship law. It was not about protecting the rights of authors, or encouraging them to produce new works. Authors' rights were in little danger in sixteenth-century England, and the recent arrival of the printing press the world's first copying machine was if anything energizing to writers.
So energizing, in fact, that the English government grew concerned about too many works being produced, not too few. The new technology was making seditious reading material widely available for the first time, and the government urgently needed to control the flood of printed matter, censorship being as legitimate an administrative function then as building roads.
The method the government chose was to establish a guild of private-sector censors, the London Company of Stationers, whose profits would depend on how well they performed their function. The Stationers were granted a royal monopoly over all printing in England, old works as well as new, in return for keeping a strict eye on what was printed.
Their charter gave them not only exclusive right to print, but also the right to search out and confiscate unauthorized presses and books, and even to burn illegally printed books.
No book could be printed until it was entered in the company's Register, and no work could be added to the Register until it had passed the crown's censor, or had been self-censored by the Stationers.It isn’t as bad as it sounds.
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