My article from a few months ago on why copyright is evil was cross-posted to the popular music industry blog Music Think Tank. As of today there are 75 comments left on the article, mostly critical, some outright vicious and insulting to me. I asked for it – I picked a provocative subject, wrote in a strong and direct voice, and published to an audience naturally hostile to my thesis.
One of the more measured – and constructive – criticisms came from the last commenter, a guy named “Randall”. He outlined an edge case that he thought problematic, and that my “abolish copyright” stance must address – namely, the damage to a musician’s reputation that could occur in a post-copyright society if his music were used in a way to which he objected. The example is if a liberal musician’s songs were used in a conservative politician’s campaign:
If there is no copyright law, then that means McDonalds, Chik-fil-a, Mitt Romney, or any other corporation or political figure could take your entire album and exploit it for their own gain. Even more so, they can exploit it in support of THEIR CAUSE. What should a musician do about that? What if Mitt Romney used your song on a campaign commercial that was aired throughout the country to support his message?
Then what if he took it a step further and put one of your staple lyrics on Mitt Romney campaign shirts, mugs, hats, bags, etc. He sells them like crazy because everyone loved the lyric and it reminded them of that song they heard on his campaign commercials. And it isn’t about the money in the above instance. But how would you feel about that? In order to support your argument you will need to say “that is fine with me. I do not own my music or words to it. They are ideas and they should be used by anyone for their particular financial or political gain.”
My response to this was to basically summarize Walter Block’s essay on The Slanderer or Libeler in his landmark 1976 book Defending the Undefendable.
The core of Randall’s rebuttal to my position is about slander and libel – an interesting problem area. He is essentially asking: would I really be OK if people I disliked adopted my music for purposes I disliked. Their actions would redound upon me, and in a copyright world where they must ask permission first – and everyone knows this – I will be taken as a Republican supporter (per his example) unless I take legal action to stop their use of my music. They are in essence committing slander by damaging “my” reputation.
But as Block convincingly works out in his book, the reputation I have among others is not “mine”, it rests in the heads of those others – its really theirs. Calling a reputation “mine” does not imply ownership on my part, as in property, just because we use the possessive form of the pronoun. Any fool can see this once its stated this way.
Also, making vicious false statements about me – a grown adult – should not be criminal any more than name-calling on a playground.
But unless slander and libel laws are abolished as well, then of course – in a post-copyright world where Mitt Romney promotes his campaign with my songs, people will form the mistaken impression that I am a conservative. It will harm “my” reputation with others. I will be compelled to sue since to remain silent on the implied slander to “my” liberal reputation will imply to my audience that I must implicitly endorse conservative politics. Its precisely the presence of slander and libel law that makes people believe nasty, untrue things about us. The burden of proof in the court of public opinion rests with me, even though I am the “victim”!
But if slander and libel laws are abolished, people would be suspicious of any rumor or insinuation that they hear about Ben Sommer. They will know that since copyright is no more, Romney is free to use my music without license. They will also know that since libel laws are no more, Romney’s use of my music doesn’t automatically imply my endorsement. People will revert to the natural circumspection and shrewdness they held for millennia before copyright and libel laws existed.
But regardless won’t it suck for my music to be used for a cause with which I disagree? The thought sucks now only because we only imagine it happening in a world where libel laws exist, and where libel is taken seriously – the world of today. When the laws don’t exist, and people don’t take shit-talking seriously – and when people are free to say and imply all sorts of stupid things about us without us having to automatically defend ourselves – then it won’t suck at all. Our reputations will be much more durable and less susceptible to damage from simple rumors. No one will care, so we won’t care.