Wal-Mart won’t pay you after you’re dead

Nor will any other big company, which seems to me to be a compelling argument that copyright should die with the creator. If the law firm my Grandfather worked for doesn’t have to pay me every time they open one of his files, why should J.K. Rowling’s grandchildren keep getting cheques for the next  century?

Normal folks spend their whole life working, and getting paid. When you retire, you should get some sort of pension, but once you die, the cheques stop coming. Game over, thank you very much, goodbye.

However, if you write any old bit of a book, or music or whatever, not only can your children continue to live off it for years after you have died, but they can even sell those rights to someone you never knew. In fact, as we’ve seen with, for example, the Beatles music, even while people are still alive, the right to collect royalties off their work can be sold off to someone didn’t write a single note on any of their tracks. Whole industries, and thousands of lawyers make a good, but not nescessarily worthwhile, living off processing income from the work of authors, musicians and artists who are dead.

I know people argue that writers and artists have a right to provide for their families, but that really doesn’t wash. Everyone tries to save a few bob to leave something for the kids, so whiy should artists be any different? Equally people point out that creative people are often horrible and mean, so their families deserve to live off the royalities for the duration of copyright, or, indeed, as long as the estate can find some way to control the use of their work.  But you know what, sometimes regular people are a pain to live with, and that doesn’t buy their brats to right to mooch off their work for 70 years after they die.

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there is no reason why an individual intellectual property right should not die with the creator of the work.  Patents on drugs expire after time, which is why we can have cheap generic drugs, and now the idea of patenting business processes is going to be reviewed by the courts, and hopefully will the knocked on the head. When intellectual property laws were first introduced, they were intended to support struggling writers in an age when the economy was 95% agricultural, and literacy was the privilege of the wekk-off.  The idea of IP was never to allow your grandchildren or some shareholders to sit on an eternally growing pile of moolah, and now that everyone can write and self-publish, it’s time we took a more democratic view of intellectual property.

BTW, I like the title of this post, it’s mine, creative commons attribution non-commerical licensed like most other stuff I do.  I put thought into it, so cite it properly!

2 thoughts on “Wal-Mart won’t pay you after you’re dead”

  1. You’re talking apples and ham sandwiches, mate. Writing/composing and salaried/hourly jobs are two totally different business models.

    A publisher won’t provide you, the author, with a pension. In countries where it isn’t provided by the government, your health insurance is something you as an author pay for, not your publisher. A publisher doesn’t pay you for taking off work on a holiday. You have to spend the money that you earn outright on those things, leaving you with much less to save than your chum who went to work for Bloggs & Co. Someone who works at a job in an office or in a factory (if there are any of those left) can, by diligence and application, save up capital to pass on to their children much more easily than the average novelist (let’s forget about poets! :-), in large part because they receive benefits that independent workers (among them creators) simply don’t receive.

    It’s all very well to hammer on JK Rowling, but she and Stephen King and Jeffrey Archer are not the norm for authors. They’re the Donald Trumps and George Soroses of the creative world. Set your sights instead on someone like my grandfather, a university professor who co-wrote a textbook on Elizabethan drama. As you can imagine, that just *flies* off the shelf. After he died, do you think his wife and daughter were living high on the hog off the proceeds? IN fact, not; it provided a tiny annual income that just about bought them dinner out once a year.

    And copyright isn’t forever. And it doesn’t guarantee *anything* in terms of income. If you produce something nobody wants, you get nothing, either in sales, royalties, or reproduction rights.

    Income from a work is just like any other property. I can sell my rental property to someone else so that they can rent it out (and maintain it); why shouldn’t I be able to sell my copyright?

    So what you’re suggesting is that we take away the ability of the most creative among us to–if they’re lucky–pass on a little something to their heirs? Seems a bit mingy, sir.

  2. The difference is that a typical task for Wal-Mart, like, say, stacking Coke on shelves, has a transient value. Time generates output, in proportion to the time put in. There is no lasting effect once the task is done.
    Creating something that generates recurring value independant of the time put in is fundamentally different. Whether that thing is a trust fund generating interest, a business making profits, patent generating royalties or a David Bowie song, there is a spectrum of things that generate passive income. There is a question of how long people can reasonable appropriate that passive income before it passes into the commons. Expiry of patents, inheritance tax and royalty deadlines are all facets of the same issue and perhaps the answer should be aligned.
    The ability to pass material wealth on to ones children is a strong incentive for the accumulation of that wealth, and hence the creation of something of value (a patent, a business, an earworm jingle). On the other hand having that wealth passed on infinitely creates an overclass of the IP equivelant of landed gentry, absentee landlord of inherited ideas. I’m reminded of the lead character in ‘About a Boy’ who lived off the proceed of his fathers Christmas No. 1.
    No right answer in this comment, only elaboration. 70 years, on the face of it, seems too long. However, it is an artifact of human nature that those with wealth will deploy such force as they can (usually, lawyers) to protect that wealth. If it was your jingle that was a Christmas number 1, would you not fight like bluebottle in a web to extend the copyright as long as possible?

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