Another title for this post might be Life After Writers, but even without copyright laws, some writers would still write for free, and there is a great deal more to copyright than just writers. And thus the reason for the title of this post.
As I have said before, I am patterning this make-believe look at different areas of publishing in a similar form as the wonderful History Channel series Life After People. So, with that in mind, I give no explanation at all why suddenly copyright doesn’t exist. I’m going to assume it just flat one moment stopped and try to look beyond that moment. Unlike my previous two subjects of Returns and Agents, where the publishing industry got better in both cases when they vanished, this will have a much similar effect on publishing as the sudden vanishing of people has on our architecture in the history channel series. Not good. Very bleak, so be warned.
So, staying in the same formula, here we go.
Life After Copyright: 1 Minute
One minute after the sudden vanishing of all copyright laws around the world, not a lot would be happening except for many experienced writers suddenly realizing they are out of a job. And many publishers would be shouting orders to try to get copies of certain things. The realization that they are soon to be out of business would not have sunk in yet.
Now is a good time to explain copyright and give a little very basic history for those who don’t understand that writers don’t “sell” a story or novel or article.
In the United States, copyright is a constitutional right, actually written into the document. If you don’t believe me, go read it.
However, since that first drafting, the laws (and around the world) have been changed to give the owners of intellectual property more rights until today, anything you write down and commit to a form is automatically protected under our laws for your life plus 70 years. This is pretty standard around the world due to a number of international copyright conventions that almost all countries signed to protect artists and writers worldwide.
Ideas are not protected under copyright law, just the form of the writing. And this protection allows us writers to make a living. We don’t have to put our copyright symbol on the work (although for a time in history we did) and we don’t have to register it (except to file a court case in this country) for the protection. The protection is automatic and ownership is assumed to the author. We no longer even have to renew every 28 years, although for a long time we did.
Now, understand, I am not a lawyer (three years of law school did not make me one). Be clear on that and make sure you study copyright on your own if you are trying to sell any kind of writing or intellectual property to anyone.
So, as should be clear to everyone, this blog is mine, I own it, I can sell it, post it here for free, anything I want. I own it completely. And posting it here for free does not mean I have given anyone permission to use it or sell it. Nope, haven’t done so.
So, how do authors make a living with their writing? Easiest way to explain it would be to think of all the rights associated with the ownership of this blog, or a short story, or a novel, as a pie-shaped circle. I can cut out a small slice and call it “first serial” and license it to a magazine. Or cut another slice and package it as a book in North America and license first North American publishing rights. Or give it to an electronic publisher and license electronic rights of some sort or another. Or cut yet another slice and license the rights to a game publisher for a game of some sort.
And the pieces can come back to me and I can relicense them if I am good with contracts. There is no limit to how many thousands of pieces can be cut and licensed and then relicensed over my lifetime plus 70 years after my death.
Everything you write under copyright law has this pie-shaped circle of rights that are only limited by the writer’s ability to think of them and license them.
Notice I did not say “sell” them. We don’t sell copyright, we license it. But the two terms have become so interchangeable in publishing, I’m not going to fight it. When I say sell, just think license.
So, if suddenly anything ever written and anything new that is written had no one controlling all the rights and no requirement for license to use, we would have exactly what I am suggesting in Life After Copyrights.
Writers could no longer make a living.
I can hear many people say “Why not?”
Let me give an example of why not. I write a novel, send it to a New York publisher to buy. They wouldn’t have to buy it, they could just take it and publish it freely without copyright protection and I would be owed nothing and have no right to get any money for it. So I wouldn’t do that, and I would even be afraid to show it to a printer, since they could just go ahead and take it and print it and sell the books and I would have no recourse.
In the brave new world of no copyright, I could write Trek with Donald Duck as the main character fighting Sherlock Holmes and no one could stop me as long as I put the little trademark symbols beside the names. Of course, no one would pay me anything for doing so, even if it was published everywhere. No copyright, no protection at all.
No protection, no money.
No ownership either. Copyright is like a property law (with some differences).
So another example would be that you build a house, and your neighbor likes your new house better and just moves in and takes it because you don’t own it and never can own it because there are no property laws. Without property laws and protection and ownership rights, you would have no recourse against him.
So, if all copyright laws suddenly vanished around the world, there would simply be no way for anyone to make any money off of anything written. There would be nothing to “sell.”
Life After Copyright: 1 Hour
I don’t know about other full-time writers, but at one hour I would be still sitting in shock, not having a clue what to do next. Since I react fairly quickly, I might be looking for a job as a bartender, or something I might be qualified to do. But more than likely I would be just sitting, doing nothing as most full-time writers would do at one hour.
99% of all beginning writers wouldn’t have a clue anything was wrong because they have yet to learn copyright.
Publishers would be in a panic. Sure, books could still be produced and the physical nature of the book sold, but the smart publishers would start understanding that they would be seeing very little new work from that moment forward and lists can only be filled so long with reprints. And with the internet, any book of value and interest to wide masses would be filling the sites and anyone who really wanted the book could get the book for free.
Hollywood and the gaming industry would also be in a panic. Without ownership protection and secondary markets for movies, any movie made would hit the internet long before it could be controlled into a theater. And without the profit motive for creating new games and software, Hollywood would start shutting down as well, maybe not in one hour, but quickly.
Millions and millions of people’s jobs and businesses would suddenly be at risk and eventually lost.
Over the last few years, because of the growth of the internet, there has been lots of talk about how information needs to be free. Uh, no, not unless you want what I am about to try to describe.
Life After Copyright: 1 Day
The news casts would be shouting this news about the sudden disappearance of copyright protection and the talking heads would be yacking on every channel, but few of them would realize they were close to being out of jobs. News casts are copyright protected and without the protection, there would be no money to be made from any kind of news casts. Network television would be coasting for a short time on the contracted ads, at least a few days if not slightly longer, but not much longer. No income, no news casts.
If you don’t own something, you can’t sell advertising to pay for it or produce it, and most ads would no longer be protected either.
The stock markets around the world would be in free fall. Copyright protection is such a basic underlying principle in a free market society that without it, a vast number of major corporations would be looking at either complete loss of business or massive losses. I can’t imagine a company anywhere not being hurt in some fashion by this lack of copyright.
I’m going to assume that trademark and patent law remains, which would protect a few things, but anything in advertising that wasn’t trademarked could be stolen by anyone and used. And without copyright protection hand-in-hand with trademark, the trademark protection will have little value in most instances.
Why not? Well, think of our current systems of protections as a tripod. One leg is copyright, one is trademark, one is patent. All legs cover different areas, yet depend and support on each other in many ways. If one leg of the tripod would suddenly vanish, it won’t remain standing for long.
The music industry would be in a tailspin downward at the same time. Groups, in one fashion or another, make money by selling their work. Nothing could be sold because everything would be free to take without copyright protection. All record companies would collapse. Musicians would have to return to only live performances. Sure, some song writing would be going on, but once a song has been performed in any fashion once for any kind of public, it would be out on the internet and free for any other musician to take and use without charge.
The biggest asset the Michael Jackson estate has is a share of the Sony Catalog, which includes the Beatles. That would go from being worth millions to zero instantly.
Places like I-Tunes would go out of business fairly quickly since if you can get something fee, why buy it? Even apps for I-Phones and the like would stop being made for the most part since nothing could be sold or protected.
Copyright protection and the ability to make money off of something new is what drives most invention and creativity. Sure, there are the poets who give a copy of their poem away for free on the street corner, but those types don’t run major innovation in business and advertising and fiction and nonfiction work.
At one day, just the first rippling of the disaster headed our way would be starting through society. There was a reason the Founding Fathers put copyright protection for artists and authors into the Constitution.
Life After Copyright: 1 Week
There would be a mass scramble on to find a way to somehow protect work from hitting the internet, but as the music and movie and book industry has already discovered, that would prove fruitless quickly.
Most major companies that deal in creative license would be scrambling to find another way to stay in existence. The list of these business in trouble would number in the hundreds of thousands. Microsoft and Mac, theater chains and movie production companies, all movie rental companies, all book companies and new bookstores, all printing companies, all gaming companies, all music companies, all software companies. At one week, all of those companies and many more would be struggling to find a new way to even make a dime.
Many would just shut down and try to preserve their cash reserves for the shareholders and owners. As the understanding of the true impact of this event sunk into the world-wide business community, the stock markets around the world would be down large percentages and any smart investor would already be moving all money out of any company that depends on copyright protection in any fashion.
And many companies would be trying to move some of their protected work to trademark, but the trademark laws are pretty clear as to what can be trademarked and what can’t be, and it will make almost no difference in the long run. Once the public becomes used to taking anything they want at will, a trademark would mean little in any reality.
The world would be sliding into a major recession or possibly depression.
Life After Copyright: 1 Month
The full impact of the problem still has not been felt, but the general public is starting to understand finally as newspapers shut down, television and cable networks shut down, book publishers shut down, theaters shut down, internet stores start to shut down or are in trouble, including Netflix, I-Tunes, Amazon.com, and so many others.
The unemployment rate is starting up and at one month, it is only barely starting.
The problem is that the public is still hungry for new books, creative programs, new games, new movies. But without the ownership and profit motive, fewer and fewer creative types will be working at all. The millions it takes to make a movie will not be available so no new movies other than small movies done for fun by a few people will be in the works. All major movie stars will be out of jobs or working cable shows where money is made by subscription.
No new game programs will be in the works other than from those hacking into old game programs and creating new just for fun. The companies that sell games, that create the new games and get them distributed to the mass audience will be shutting down at one month.
Most software programs have a patent protection, but that is also mixed in with some copyright protection. Finding the protection or even the corporate structure to continue to fund new software programs without copyright protections will be tough, if not impossible. Thousands and thousands of programmers will be on the verge of being out of work or already laid off, and will have time to create free software on their own. But there will be no profit motive in any work they do.
There will be a huge push to find ways of protecting work on the internet, including encryption programs and other methods of stopping a work from being passed around. Most won’t work for very long as has already been discovered by many, many people.
Remember, without copyright, nothing creative can be sold. There is no ownership to sell (license). And without the protection, there would be no reason for anyone to pay money for anything offered to them. Once they see it, they can just use it.
Back to publishing. Most major book publishers at one month would be coasting or shutting down. Most have lists of books lined up for at least a year or more, but why spend more money on those books unless a way can be figured out to protect them in the process. The focus would also be on trying to figure out a way to get authors to still write for them and a way to pay the authors for work that could be taken and used without notice at any step in the system. No professional author is going to spend months writing a book, then offer it to someone who can at that point simply take it and publish it and keep any money made. I doubt this problem would ever be solved on a large scale.
There will still be a demand for book as an item, in hardback or paperback form, but with the advent of Kindles and the like, once a book hits the internet for free, it will be cutting drastically into any market, and anyone who would want could simple have it printed. Print on demand houses would remain in business and grow, more than likely.
Without certain protections, even the companies who have patent and trademark protection on reading devices will lose the battle eventually, including the cash stream of selling products for their devices.
Many writers out there would keep writing. Somehow printing up and selling their own new work, often using a subscription-based method over the internet. I personally would be watching the collapse from a bartender’s job.
Life After Copyright: 1 Year
The world would be in a vast and deep recession or sliding into a depression. Millions and millions and millions of jobs world wide would have been lost suddenly with the vanishing of copyright protection and the weakening of trademark and patent protection in the process.
With few small exceptions of reprint imprints, all publishers would be out of business as well as most newsstand magazines. Some internet magazines done for love, owner written, and somehow slightly protected and paid with subscriptions or donations would survive. Newspapers would be gone and all news would have moved completely to the internet and more than likely be some sort of subscriber payment or donation payment for breaking news. These would be small.
The cable news programs might find a way to survive because of subscription costs of cable programming.
Cable companies would still be functioning at a small scale and would start to be the capital behind funding new shows, much as cable networks do today. All paid by subscription and small ads. But this would also be small because once aired, any show can be taken and copied and distributed easily by anyone. Small local source vendors would spring up selling copied shows and locally printed books. At one year none of this would be settled out yet.
All of this loss of protection would focus the attention on the governments to control the sources of all this free material. Without a functioning free press in a free economy, paid for by advertising and cable fees and protected by the copyright laws, governments around the world would have to step in and fund certain areas of the media just to keep something going. And history has always proven that when the government controls the news and flow of creative work, democracy and capitalism tends to be in trouble.
Life After Copyright: 10 Years
The world would not be the same place as I type this today.
Before copyright laws existed, there were a number of ways of funding new work. Mostly patrons, the church, or the government paid for artists to work for them, doing a certain job (like painting a church ceiling) and more than likely that system would be back in full bloom.
Freelance writers would be creating for small audiences, small private groups, artists would be painting for fees for the right to own an original work, musicians would be playing to small audiences original work also paid for by a patron. And so on. The free work available across the internet would be used as promotion to get a writer or an artist hired to do private work. But 99% of all artist, all writers, all musicians would be out of work or doing what they love as a hobby and nothing more.
Government paid and run television and news casts would be the norm around the world, filtering the news as needed for the current government. The internet would be expanding even more than it is today, trying to fight back against the news control (note: Iran), but computer technology and advancement would be mostly at a crawl, especially on the hardware side.
Invention of all sorts, even patented work, would be slowed to almost a crawl. The days when innovation and creation seemed to stay ahead of us all would be long gone. The world would still be in a deep depression and capitalism and in some cases democracy around the world would be in trouble in many ways.
The demand for entertainment would be strong, but funding such entertainment on any large scale would be difficult at best and the distribution systems would all be gone. Such entertainment would be left mostly in the hands of patrons or governments. Lots of writers and musicians and artists would be giving their work away for free, but without editors or ways of cutting through all the crap, the internet would look like a vast slush pile and trust me, as a former editor, that’s not something anyone would want or waste their time with.
My guess is that in ten years used bookstores would be flourishing while most new bookstores and all major chain stores would have long since been put out of business.
I am sure that in this exercise of looking ahead I have missed a number of major areas where the sudden disappearance of copyright laws would have a huge impact. And a number of you might disagree with my extrapolations. Fine, write a story or novel with this idea and your extrapolations and sell it. You have the right under the current laws to do that.
I have talked with a number of people over the past week about this and all of us have one opinion in common. We all came to the conclusion that the future without copyright law would be bleak at best, dark ages at worst. That capitalism would be in danger, and democracy, which depends on many aspects of free press, free information, and freedom of ownership with the right to sell, would also be in danger. That was our conclusions and I agree completely.
There was a reason copyright protection was in early British law, and that the Founding Fathers of this country put it in the Constitution. And there is a real reason why the expansion of copyright protections around the world has helped capitalism expand and democracy to gain roots everywhere.
It is a fundamental right to own and control what we create. Let’s just hope it doesn’t vanish at any point in the near future.