Why copyright does NOT mean money for those who create original material

Quite by accident, I came across an interesting article which throws new light on why copyright is not quite what it is generally supposed to be.

Copyright is not a moral axiom.  There is no teaching in the bible that states it, nor is it self-evident.

The idea behind it is that people should be able to profit from their intellectual or artistic labours.  An example of the problem caused by the lack of copyright is the edition of Chrysostom researched and published by Sir Henry Saville in the 17th century.  It’s an excellent text, but Saville lost quite a bit of money on it because someone bought copies of the volumes as they appeared, shipped them to Holland, copied them, added a Latin translation, and sold the result for his own profit.  This was perfectly legal, and, had Sir Henry not been a rich man, might have prevented the rest of the edition appearing.  A copyright law would have given Sir Henry redress to stop the rival publication.

When the “creative industries” (as they like to call themselves) are lobbying for yet more extensions to copyright, they invariably hold up the right of the artist, the creative person, to be protected.  Yet we all know that the copyright is always sold to someone else, and that, in reality, it is the rights of the middleman, the publisher, the record company, that are at stake.

At the moment, out of the sales of CD’s, only 13% “belongs” to the band.  63% is kept by the record company, and the remaining 24% goes to the distributor.  But the band has yet more costs to pay from “its” 13%; some 28% goes on managers and lawyers and so on.  The remainder is divided among the musicians.

Now that doesn’t sound too bad.  But … when does that 13% start getting paid?  Does the copyright provision actually mean that the artist gets his share?  Well, no it doesn’t.  Because the record company demands that the band repay advances and the like out of that 13%.

So, back to our original example of the average musician only earning $23.40 for every $1,000 sold. That money has to go back towards “recouping” the advance, even though the label is still straight up cashing 63% of every sale, which does not go towards making up the advance.

The math here gets ridiculous pretty quickly when you start to think about it. These record label deals are basically out and out scams. In a traditional loan, you invest the money and pay back out of your proceeds.

But a record label deal is nothing like that at all. They make you a “loan” and then take the first 63% of any dollar you make, get to automatically increase the size of the “loan” by simply adding in all sorts of crazy expenses (did the exec bring in pizza at the recording session? that gets added on), and then tries to get the loan repaid out of what meager pittance they’ve left for you.

Oh, and after all of that, the record label still owns the copyrights. That’s one of the most lopsided business deals ever.

So think of that the next time the RIAA or some major record label exec (or politician) suggests that protecting the record labels is somehow in the musicians’ best interests.

The situation in publishing is no better.  No normal author gets paid very much for the content.

So … could someone explain again, honestly, just why copyright is in the public interest? 

OK … I still do believe that Sir Henry Saville should have some redress.  But I suggest that we’re quite a long way away from that common sense problem, and getting further away with each tweak to the law.

If only our politicians didn’t take bribes from industries so readily!

4 Responses to “Why copyright does NOT mean money for those who create original material”


  1. Marcel

    “If only our politicians didn’t take bribes from industries so readily!”

    I can never decide if it’s bribery or extortion, but either way it’s the root of many problems.

  2. Roger Pearse

    A bit of both, of course.

  3. Rob Flammang

    You said it yourself, of course. Inevitably, the author sells it to some middleman. And how much would that middleman pay the author, if there were no chance of striking it rich? Nothing is a lot less than something.

    The author sells his chances to the middleman, and receives a guaranteed, if small, remuneration for the sale. The middleman pays a lot of money, a little to a large number of authors, to receive a large number of small chances, presumably, if he’s successful, a large enough number to actually meet his payroll.

  4. Roger Pearse

    I’m not sure that the author does receive a guaranteed remuneration — isn’t he usually on a percentage, after costs? And since costs may well exceed sales — one of the points made by the article — he may receive nothing.

    It would be interesting to know how many authors do actually get paid for their efforts (and their copyright).



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