Copyright Isn’t a Human Right

human rights

“Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”

Article 27, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

This clause is often understood (erroneously) to refer to copyright, but it is not copyright. Rather, it refers to what is called:

Natural rights, also called inalienable rights, are considered to be self-evident and universal. They are not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government. Legal rights, also called statutory rights, are bestowed by a particular government to the governed people and are relative to specific cultures and governments. They are enumerated or codified into legal statutes by a legislative body.

Natural and legal rights, Wikipedia

Moral rights pertain to intellectual work; a perpetual right to identify themselves as the author of their original work (that involves no copy, just the original). The author has natural dominion over the original work; and is free to lock it away, or share it, or sell it; but even if sold, the creator is forever the creator. The offense against the author’s moral right is plagiarism. This is what is recognized in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948.

Printer in 1568 by Jost Amman (public domain)

A right is a right no matter the locality and it lasts forever; a privilege like copyright only exists for the period of time set by the law of the land. Copyright is a state granted monopoly wherever it exists, but of course sovereign nations have different laws. That doesn’t change the fact that it exists only because it is imposed by statute.

American Copyright History
The framers of the American Constitution did recognize the natural human rights of creators, and secured these rights, but again, that was not copyright. After all, the 1787 Constitution certainly didn’t recognize the US Copyright privilege that was based upon itself and not enacted until two years later in 1790.

Copyright = Monopoly
Published works lie outside of an author’s human rights, so the state grants exclusive reproduction privilege — a monopoly — over the reproduction of published works. That is copyright.

The printing monopolies predating the Statute of Anne in England were privileges granted printers, and so are even less beneficial to creators than copyright, and so not the same thing at all.

Image Credits

Public domain image From Wikipedia Printer in 1568 by Jost Amman (1539–1591)

Thanks to Crosbie Fitch, as reference was made to: Mythologising Copyright, Printerlectual Poppetry and More than one Madison Confused by Copyright

Again, this article came from the comments on BuzzMachine.


18 thoughts on “Copyright Isn’t a Human Right

  1. The ‘copyright cartel’ of immortal publishing corporations (unlike human beings) is very interested to pretend that copyright is a human right (as opposed to a privilege that derogates the right to copy from the human right to liberty). See the following example of this travesty:

    The copyright industry started by affirming that copyright was a “fundamental human right” under the European Convention itself and in European Union law, and this was accepted by the Court.

    • The irony about copyright being changed into a human ‘right’ – i.e a moral right, not an economic right- is that it results in the economic right: the exclusive right of control of usage, being alienated from the individual right holder. It becomes a ‘right’ to which you cannot say no. For many creatives the actual exercise of copyright is counter to their individual economic interests. For many, open source is a perfectly competitive economic alternative to the exercise of copyright.

      What is really galling about the copyright licensing industry is the attempt to impose a monopoly restriction of creatives terms of trade, dressed up as if it was a “moral right” of creatives, as Dylan would say ‘they have a lot of nerve’, no?

      PS- -compulsory usage and compulsory collective management- is also a violation of the Stockholm Convention as it is incorporated into the Berne convention

    • If copyright is a human right [a premise I do not accept],then corporations should not under any circumstances be allowed to hold copyright, for the simple fact that, they are not human.

      Thanks for the link. I found this equally disturbing:

      When discussing the flaws in the cost-benefit analysis done prior to the Act passing, the Judge accepted that it would have opened Parliament “to ridicule” had it considered the “consumer welfare” of infringers, and that this review was “. Concerns were raised over whether or not Libraries and other providers of open wi-fi would be affected, but these were dismissed by the copyright industry on the grounds that this would be dealt with by Ofcom in the code.

      When one considers the fact that what is called “infringing” today was not only perfectly acceptable but legal only a few years ago. if this is

      “… not the place for any debate on whether the current copyright law “strikes a fair balance …”

      I’d like to know what is.

  2. Shane Simpson is a widely respected Australian authority on copyright.

    The following is from the Review of Australian Copyright Collecting Societies conducted by Shane Simpson on behalf of the Federal Government in 1995:
    “The general attitude of WIPO to statutory [compulsory] licences is that they should be avoided wherever [volutary] collective administration is feasible. In brief, it is considered that collective administration recognises that the individual copyright owner has the essential right to control usage – even though, for ease of administration, that individual may choose to license or assign that right to a representative organisation. When that right to control is taken away, all that one is left with is a ‘right to remuneration’, which is a quite different concept to the full rights of copyright”

    And, “not all rights of copyright benefit from collective administration. Many exercises of the rights are best dealt with on a one-by-one basis. The most simple indicator of this is that no group of Australian copyright owners has transferred all of their rights of copyright to a society for collective administration.”

    In reference to the ,by now, old argument that individual primary rights are obsolete in this modern digital age and should be replaced by
    statutory rights, Shane Simpson further states:

    “It is very doubtful that this response is in the interest of the general community, although it is certainly in the commercial interest of certain commercial would-be, rights-user groups.”

    The licensing industry is full of piggy merde and “would-be, rights-user groups”.

    Ps I have managed my own copyright for all of my professional life ,as do about 60+% of all australian artists

    • Copyright is a monopoly nonetheless.

      That’s lovely that copyright has not caused you harm – the problem is that over the last century most practitioners of the other art forms have suffered Indentured servitude to distributors.

      Compulsory Copyright Collectives seem to be particularly bad for culture. I haven’t seen evidence of any “benefit from collective administration.” Rather they seem to make it worse. Compulsory collectives extort “royalty” payments from venues hosting live entertainment and even sidewalk buskers on the ‘just-in-case; assumption they will infringe copyright in their performance. The natural result is a chilling effect triggering an arificial scarcity of live venues for creators.

      Currently we have a copyright collective which has been known to claim to speak for *all Canadian writers* (they don’t… nor have they been charged to do this by their actual membership) doing its best to make the bad proposed Canadian Bill C-32 copyright law even worse.

      The copyright regime has never worked well for creators, rather it has been a means to allow distributors and lately copyright collectives to assume control of culture, to the increasing detriment of both artist and society. Criminalizing cultural sharing is madness.

      Perhaps it is time for all artists to be fairly paid for their work in the first place. Leaving it up to the printers to sell their in a free market as @Crosbie suggests.

  3. Laurel
    Wont argue over ‘value adding,’ its not that germane.

    “why they are trying to change the laws around the world.”
    Is because the industry is increasingly looking to covertly turn copyright into privatized (hypothecated) transaction taxes.

    I am an visual artist, my mob have been Indies since Gustave Corbet (about 1863) staged the first independent 1 man exhibition.
    In Australia the copyright collectives spent a decade , and a lot of money, trying to impose a hypothecated tax on the resale of art and also impose the costs of compulsory monopoly collective management on Indie visual Artists, they did not do that well;

    Over the past 5 decades a lot of unpleasant characteristics became accepted as quite normal in the copyright clubhouse; But when they emerged into public view the combination of self centered, lawless, blatantly dishonest , arrogant, dim witted, myopic, authoritarian mediocrity, did not sell well.

    • One of my visual artist brothers has been doing limited edition prints for years, so I’m aware that they don’t always have to surrender copyright.

      Still, Canada currently has compulsory monopoly collective management for recorded music &tc. here as well, and are currently in the throes of the third attempt in a decade to gift us with a new copyright law that will appease the American copyright lobby. The worst part of Bill C-32, the Canadian DMCA, bit is that circumventing DRM will be illegal even if circumventing doesn’t infringe copyright. ie, public domain books may not be readable on a DRMed ereader.

      The biggest problem is that although Canadians have been saying no to this, we may well get it anyway.

  4. A small caveat , in situations were the costs of making a copy (and distribution costs) are virtually zero , copyright has a problem – the copies have little intrinsic value.

    • Exactly. Copies should not be overpriced.

      For most of the last century writers were paid in the neighborhood of three cents a word. At the beginning of that same century purchasing a decent sized house might have cost a hundreds of dollars. At the end of the century, that same house would cost in the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The justification was that printing/shipping costs etc. were always going up. Dime novels eventually became paperbacks that cost Twenty dollars a pop. I own paperbacks printed in the 1920’s that are in wonderful shape, and ones printed in the 1970’s that disintegrated as they were read. For both the writer and the audience, costs were disproportionate.

      It seems to me that copyright enriches the publishers, which is bad enough, as well as the ‘copyright collectives’ (who add no value), whilst creators are for the most part the only ones unable to make a living at it. The problem is that there has been a huge power imbalance. To me it seems that copyright is a huge #FAIL. We need better ways of doing this.

      As a creator, it horrifies me that governments are seeking to criminalize copyright infringement. I’d rather give my work away than have it send my audience to jail.

    • Laurel I am an artist and very open source, mostly agree.

      Hard copy publishing is a variety of capital intensive, mechanical manufacturing/distribution , in all such manufacturing, labor costs are a relatively small component of the costs of production – there is a lot of ‘value adding’ going on- the margins you speak of were not quite as unfair as they might seem.

      In digital publishing this is not the case, production costs per unit are very small- this difference , this very sudden ‘phase transition’ lies at the root of much of the current copyright wars.

      Not so long ago being a pirate would have meant investing millions in presses and distribution networks IE a pirate was risking a lot of dosh for little potential gain – not surprisingly the industry became a cozey dozy gentlemans club, these days it is struggling to keep the door closed.

      • John, you said

        “Hard copy publishing is a variety of capital intensive, mechanical manufacturing/distribution, in all such manufacturing, labor costs are a relatively small component of the costs of production – there is a lot of ‘value adding’ going on- the margins you speak of were not quite as unfair as they might seem.

        from which I understood ‘labour’ to mean the creator.
        Without the content, all of the value added is pointless. Beyond a few super stars, for all of the artistic fields, the creators, the artists, musicians, writers etc. did the most important job were the ones who did the most poorly under the copyright regime. The ones who did best were the publisher/distributors who had the power to dictate terms and control the distribution.

        Then, as now, there were professional bootleggers. I hold bootleggers to be distinct from pirates, you see. Before digital distribution what is being called piracy today was done by everyone, and was both acceptable and not considered a threat to the distributors. What the copyright maximalists call ‘piracy’ includes back up copies, lending, sharing and format shifting when the original technology is rendered obsolete by the decree of the manufacturers. What is called ‘piracy’ today is what used ro be called ‘word of mouth’ advertising.

        It’s why all the ‘piracy’ that’s going on leads to even stronger branding and greater profits from the very publisher/distributors who are trying to criminalize it around the world.

        The threat to distributors isn’t from the ‘piracy’ it’s from the fact that distributors are no longer the only game in town. Instead of adapting they’ve elected to spend obscene amounts of money trying to convince people that sharing is wrong, and when that didn’t work, change the laws to criminalize it. This after extending copyright terms to the point they are detrimental both to artists and audiences.

        Any digital art can be disseminated nearly for free around the world. Used to be the CRIA controlled 99% of the Canadian recording industry. Today musical artists can both cut and distribute their own music without being forced to give up their copyright to the record label. They no longer have to enter into the indentured servitude spawned by copyright. Which is why CRIA’s 99% is down to 70% of the recording Industry– 30% of the Canadian music Industry have gone truly independent. THAT is why they are trying to change the laws around the world.

  5. Laurel I basically agree- Copyright is not a moral/human right . True Copyright is an individual economic right that has some really socially good features.
    What has happened over the past 60 years is that it has been distorted into a right of powerful groups , mainly corporation and licensing groups.

    True copyright is a very good way of determining the total fair payment to the creator for the transfer of ownership of a creation from the private domain to the public domain ; The more useful the creation, the more copies sold, and thus by the end of the term of copyright the total value, to wider society, has been calculated and paid to the creator.

    This is not how it currently mostly works but that is not a reason to throwout the whole shebang.

    Copyright is not licensing.

    • Thing is, it is not a personal right, it’s a monopoly. In very few cases this monopoly was personal, but in most copyright driven industries, powerful corporations wrested copyright control from the creator in one way or another.

      Which is why I would have to beg and plead with an inhuman corporation to be able to host television episodes I have written on my website more than twenty years later.

  6. Good article, Laurel. 🙂

    Copyright is not a right, but having been unethically enacted can be considered to be a material interest arising. But then contrary to the UDHR it is rather poorly protected. Aside from major piracy it is entirely up to the holder of this privilege to protect it – you can’t go running to police if you find someone infringing your copyright, you have to find a lawyer and pay for the protection yourself (or find a publisher who’ll do it).

    Anyway, the UDHR does not preclude the abolition of copyright, the repeal of an 18th century anachronism. Once it’s gone, and gone for good, then it can no longer arise as a material interest.

    Without copyright, all artists enjoy their cultural liberty unadulterated. Printers then have to sell copies in a free market, i.e. without the benefit of a monopoly.

    • Actually it seems to me that all of the UDHR is rather poorly protected.

      Unfortunately what they call “piracy” is almost entirely personal use “sharing” copyright infringement, rather than criminal bootlegging. In fact, much of what they call piracy is not actually illegal. Since copyright is not a natural right but statutory privilege, what is covered by this monopoly and how is different in each sovereign state around the world.

      The problem seems to me that copyright maximalists are working to change the laws to criminalize copyright infringement, which will make it the responsibility of law enforcement.

    • The publishers have been trying for some time to offload the costs of prosecuting copyright to the state (all in the name of the poor starving artist of course), and so yes, they may well succeed. They’ve at least managed to make inroads into establishing the presumption of guilt on the part of an alleged infringer (‘graduated response’, etc.).

      It’s going to get worse before it crashes and burns.

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