Copyright Is Property, But It’s Worth More

Brian Zick

Mark Helprin has an op-ed in the NY Times arguing that the intellectual property of copyright is property like any other, and that all ownership rights should remain the exclusive preserve of the original authors and their estates, just as tangible property ownership - for example, an automobile manufacturer or investment banking enterprise - is passed from heir to heir without assets being seized by the government and distributed freely to the masses. He duly notes the prerequisites of the Constitution, and then urges that congressional authority to establish copyright protection “for limited Times” be interpreted to mean "perpetuity."Helprin's bio is here, if you'd like to know more about who he is.Being a copyright owner, I heartily endorse the underlying principle of his reason. Labor is labor, whether building autos or writing books, and the benefit which accrues should not be diminished because one form of property is tangible and the other intangible. The labor of creativity deserves respect and financial compensation in direct relation to its asset value the same as tangible property ownership is rewarded, and especially as that value may increase over time, long past the demise of an author.But I depart from Mr. Helprin's argument for copyright ownership to be held in perpetuity. "Limited Times" is sufficiently vague for a broad lattitude of interpretation, but simple dictionary meaning precludes an honest equation of such opposite definitions. Perhaps more significantly, the founders in their wisdom determined that the public - after some measureable period of time - did deserve to benefit from the government's redistribution of intellectual property wealth. And my respect for the other work they did in constitutional architecture compels me to consider their decisions about copyright with the same level of high regard.Not that they were infallible, and indeed that's why they created the mechanism for amendments. But notwithstanding that property is property, "the Progress of Science and useful Arts" really is a pubic imperative. Education and enlightenment have values that transcend the price of a house or a car.Nobody really likes paying taxes, but wealthy people are able to enjoy the grand benefits of their wealth as a direct consequence of operating in our democracy. Dictatorships tend not to provide similar rewarding allowances. And so wealthy folks have an obligation (as does everybody else) to support our democracy by tax payments in some measure of proportion to the financial rewards they enjoy. (Obviously, this is a philosophical argument, alas not an observation of how things actually work.) By similar token, authors and artists and inventors are also able to create freely, as a direct result of living in our democracy. Tyrants do not smile on creativity any more than they turn a blind eye to the earning of wealth. And it's an exceedingly modest price to pay for that freedom, by allowing the government to set a time limit on ownership of that creativity, after which it enters the public domain.

In These Times August 2022 Cover
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