Against Monopoly

defending the right to innovate

Monopoly corrupts. Absolute monopoly corrupts absolutely.

Copyright Notice: We don't think much of copyright, so you can do what you want with the content on this blog. Of course we are hungry for publicity, so we would be pleased if you avoided plagiarism and gave us credit for what we have written. We encourage you not to impose copyright restrictions on your "derivative" works, but we won't try to stop you. For the legally or statist minded, you can consider yourself subject to a Creative Commons Attribution License.


Would books be published without copyright?

Stephen Greenblatt writes in The Swerve; How the World Became Modern, "Authors made nothing from the sale of their books; their profits derived from the wealthy patron to whom the work was dedicated. (The arrangement … seems odd to us but it had an impressive stability, remaining in place until the invention of copyright in the eighteenth century.) Publishers had to contend, as we have seen, with the widespread copying [by hand] of books among friends, but the business of producing and marketing books must have been a profitable one; there were bookshops not only in Rome but also in Brindisi, Carthage… and other cities [in the Roman empire]."

This suggests to me that books and other writings today would be produced without copyright, which is after all a government granted monopoly and an enormous tax on the public. Think about it.


There are a number of examples of patrons suppressing or censoring the works of authors. One problem with the patronage system is that is was not a "free" system from the perspective that the authors had very little freedom of speech. One has to wonder how much of our knowledge of history is colored by inaccuracies forced by patrons on their authors.

So, between a patronage system where the patron edits the works of the author and a copyright system where the author is free to express his own thoughts, I will take the system with the greater freedom of speech.

As for the spread of bookshops, yes, there were bookshops in every one of the very large cities that you mentioned. However, the bookshops were confined to the large cities and most rural people, which was 90% or more of the population, rarely, if ever, saw books. Books were the province of wealthy people because of the relative cost of books at that time. If you had an actual shelf of books, regardless of whether you had actually read them, or even had to the ability to read them, you were considered a wealthy person.

During the Renaissance the patronage system began to collapse for a variety of reasons, just at the very time when printing became comparatively cheaper. It was not until our modern era of copyright that books were cheap enough that the common person could afford penny newspapers, nickel magazines, and dime-store books.

Just as the patronage system got replaced by the copyright system, there is a better system to match current technologies. We are in transition, but no doubt copyright will be replaced since it restricts freedom and is being used to extract economic rents.

When you say there is "no doubt" that copyright will be replaced because "it restricts freedom and is being used to extract economic rents," I submit that neither of those reasons will modify the use of copyright, because obviously both of those characteristics were inherent in copyright from the beginning. Indeed, the vast majority of countries in the world, even many developing countries that previously did not have copyright, have adopted and are enforcing copyright. It would seem that if your justification was correct that no countries would have adopted or begin increased enforcement of copyright in the last decade, but they have.

The other problem is that with varying levels of enforcement in over 100 countries, and 100% of all developed economies, eliminating or even reducing copyright is a significant challenge. One of the biggest challenges is that copyright has been intertwined between multiple countries through various treaties that would need to be renegotiated and unwound from each other, something that is going to be painful and complex. With so many problems in the world today, I do not see this one being very high on many people's list to solve.

"even many developing countries that previously did not have copyright, have adopted and are enforcing copyright"

Yes, but often not because they want to but in order to get trade agreements with developed nations.

"Yes, but often not because they want to but in order to get trade agreements with developed nations."

Also because they are under pressure from their own artists, writers, and film industry to prevent others from infringing their natural right to control their work for a limited time.

I think it's going to evolve towards a better system with or without copyright. Right now copyright litigation is costing enough money to where if an author can still make money despite violations, I believe they would rather do that. Patronage wasn't the only system. Another system was serializing novels. By publishing each chapter in a literary magazine the magazine had an incentive to pay the author to keep subscriptions up. The cost for printing was made up for being the first publisher before anyone else as it would take time to transcribe. In the digital age I believe this can still be done by releasing chapter on a bounty basis. You release the first chapter for free. Then you have a page where you set a certain amount of money that you believe is acceptable to get paid for your work. When a certain amount in donations is reached then the next chapter is released. But even with material out there free and available, I still believe fan loyalty exist. If a publishing company claims they have the official version approved by the author, the number of sales will never be zero no matter how many competing copies are out there. People pay for books printed on good paper or a nice hard cover or love possessing a physical book. You won't get a cut of every copy out there in the wild but those people weren't your customer anyway. If anything it's advertising to generate a bigger audience.

I would be curious as to how much copyright litigation is costing. I have never seen any numbers.

I was wondering whether free-market advocate Adam Smith made much money from his books.

On-line bio's establish that he already had a pension from having tutored the Duke of Bucchleuch, apparently enough that he could devote his time to writing the Wealth of Nations. The book sold well, he might have received some sort of royalties but I see no mention of this. After its publication, "he was named lord rector of the University of Edinburgh and in 1778 was appointed as commissioner of customs in Scotland." (from: http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/philosophy/adam_smith.html). I infer that royalties had little if anything to do with his motivation for writing the book, and he benefited materially in ways which have nothing to do with "intellectual" "property."

Does anyone here know more about this?


"The Wealth of Nations" went through five editions in the first 13 years of publication, which occurred during Smith's life. Smith made a number of changes to the second edition and major changes to the third edition. The book apparently was selling quite well, given that an edition roughly every 2.5 years is significant for a non-fiction book.

In addition to the five editions of the book personally edited by Smith, the book was in publication in The United States, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Considering the book. Apparently, Smith derived considerable income from his royalties, along with two other sources of income, as stated by Senior Economist Robert L. Formaini (http://www.dallasfed.org/assets/documents/research/ei/ei0201.pdf). Formaini described the last decade of his life as being one of opulence, funded at least in part by publication royalties.

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