Authors Guild’s Muddy Argument for Copyright Law

The erosion of copyright protection in the age of rampant theft of intellectual property over the internet is a serious problem, but an op-ed in the NY Times written by officials of The Authors Guild provides a poor argument for action.

The erosion of copyright protection in the age of rampant theft of intellectual property over the internet is a serious problem, but an op-ed in the NY Times written by officials of The Authors Guild provides a poor argument for action.  The Authors Guild is a membership advocacy organization that serves writers (including myself). So one would hope its leaders could mount a ringingly effective argument to rouse legislators to take action to protect us poor scribes. But their logic is muddy and their argument half thought-out and  amateurish.

They begin by recalling the emergence of commercial theater in Elizabethan London and the flurry of great playwriting that ensued – their point is that writers write best when paid. They further note that in the 18th century both Britain and the U.S. established copyright laws to promote intellectual creativity. They warn that if we do not police and strengthen copyright law there will be poorer incentives to create. That seems true, but they do not provide evidence to support it.

In the first place, Shakespeare’s unrivaled achievement was not the product of copyright laws established nearly a century after his death. And secondly, if the establishment of those laws resulted in a flourishing of the arts in the 18th century, the authors do not make that point. We know that financial reward is crucial to promote creativity, and that copyright laws help direct revenues to creators, but this op-ed is a poor argument that fails to demonstrate either point effectively. It is the sort of sloppy ad hominem writing that plays to the home audience without convincing others of the pressing need for reform.

One of the co-authors, Guild president Scott Turow, testifies today at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing, “Targeting Websites Dedicated To Stealing American Intellectual Property.” If his testimony is anything like his op-ed it is unlikely to elicit significant legal action in support of creators. But there is hope  that more effective economic arguments will help sway Congress to make these issues a priority.

Jason Edward Kaufman

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

A complete list of past articles is available here.

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