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Expansive Copyright Licensing Claims as Inefficient Welfare

I’ve recently been browsing Hans Abbing’s fascinating work Why Are Artists Poor?–which has exactly one reference to copyright in its index. Despite the fact that Abbing sees extraordinary inequality in the incomes of artists, and “structural poverty” persisting for a large number of them, he does not appear to think more enforcement of IP rights would help them. Why is this? Abbing sees the “exceptional economy of the arts” as essentially “pre-capitalist,” with gift relationships, personal contact, and dependence crucial aspects of the equation. Based in Europe, Abbing believes that “artists manage by benefit of modern social security” (287). In other words, the type of welfare that helps the poor generally helps unpatronized artists “eek by.” (Compare that system to, say, the alphabet city bohemia depicted in Rent.)

Now consider a classically American approach to the problem: assuring compensation by tracking down every uncompensated use of a copyrighted work. For example, one might shut down all volunteer guitar tablature sites until songwriters can wring a dollar out of each use.

What are the costs and benefits of each approach? Well, the American system ostensibly singles out the *deserving* artists. But as critics from Litman to Boudin have realized, a lot of responsibility for the success of the “hit” lies in the audience that loves it. What happens to be a “hit” is often arbitrary…there are few ways of arguing that, say, the last song of Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is any worse that the song(s) that “hit” from that album. Moreover, the expansion of licensing claims is what Stanley Surrey might call an “upside down subsidy:” it’s most likely to benefit those least needing the help (since the biggest royalties go to those who have already “made it”).

So what’s the conclusion? Perhaps only that a) there are some remarkable positive externalities arising out of slightly more generous welfare policies (just ask J.K. Rowling!), and b) keying reward to market success may be an inefficient way of promoting the arts.