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A Natural Right to Sing Billy Bragg's Songs · Sunday October 25, 2009 by Crosbie Fitch

On the new a2f2a website Billy Bragg asks me “Why do you believe you have a natural right to share and build upon the published music you receive without having to seek permission, or pay any tax or royalty?”

To me this is akin to asking me why I believe the Earth is spherical.

It is not an unreasonable question, especially if we simply take what we’ve grown used to at face value as ‘the way things are’. Consequently, for the Earth to be flat doesn’t seem particularly unnatural. However, if you take any time to investigate things in depth, just as you realise that the Earth can’t possibly be flat, you realise that one can’t possibly have a natural right to prevent others making copies of anything that you give to them.

Just as a basket maker has never naturally been able to prevent those who purchase their baskets from making copies or using them to carry silver without a cut, so a songwriter or musician has never naturally been able to prevent those who hear their songs or tunes from singing or performing them, or doing so for money without royalty. It has always taken a potentate and their police force to do such things, e.g. prohibit the wearing of imperial colours or collect a levy on wine. Individuals naturally born as equals are not born with such a privilege of dictating what other people may or may not do with the things they have made, purchased, or discovered (irrespective of similarity to, or provenance from, any other). Even the power of collecting a tithe, levy, tax, or royalty takes the power of a church, baron, or king to achieve.

Natural rights are those powers or abilities to defend their interests that individuals are born with (as equals), i.e. the power to protect their lives (their bodies), their privacy (and the possessions within it), the truth (their apprehension of it against deceit or impairment), and their liberty (against the will of others). Rather than solely relying upon each individual’s physical strength these natural rights are supposed to be additionally and fairly protected by a government empowered by the people precisely for this purpose. Such a government is not empowered to grant privileges (though sadly, by dint of the power they can assume, they do anyway).

In 1710 Queen Anne suspended from individuals’ natural right to liberty their right to copy or perform the original works of others. This right to copy was reserved as a transferable privilege initially attached to each original work, hence ‘copyright’. In effect the individual’s inalienable liberty had been alienated from them by the state to serve both the state’s interest in seeing political expression controlled, and the interest of the stationers’ guild in continuing their members’ monopolies (especially as legally enforceable). Neither state nor guild was interested in their power or profits being undermined by the propaganda or piracy of an uncontrolled press.

Three centuries later, we are still born with the natural right to copy or perform the original works of1 others, but there now exists a privilege known as ‘copyright’ that enables the holder thereof to exclude us from doing so. Government via the police protect our natural rights, but they do not protect privileges. This is why the police aren’t supposed to arrest people for singing songs against the copyright holder’s wishes or making recordings at concerts and selling copies thereof. The responsibility and expense of policing and asserting their privilege is entirely that of the copyright holder. Well, it has been until relatively recently. The publishing corporations are lobbying for their privilege of copyright to become as protected by the state as any natural right of an individual. Such privileges are also known as legal rights, since whilst they appear to recognise a right, that right does not arise in nature (to be protected by law), but arises only from the law itself (protecting the state’s, crown’s, or lobbyists’ special interests).

So, all discussion of the legal rights artists may still need or those that might remain lucrative to them, even if copyright’s ability to exclude unauthorised copies is largely ineffective, are misguided. Ethically, people can only ask for the protection of the natural rights they have, not those privileges they may covet or believe they need to make a living. They should certainly not be tempted to adjust one privilege into another, e.g. if one’s privilege is no longer able to prevent copies made by another, one should be given the privilege of extracting a royalty from another, if their business involves the use of one’s work.

The distinction of natural right from state granted privilege is not new thinking, but was well known even as the US Constitution was being framed in 1787. See the WikiPedia entry concerning the work Rights of Man by Thomas Paine:

Human rights originate in Nature, thus, rights cannot be granted via political charter, because that implies that rights are legally revocable, hence, would be privileges:

It is a perversion of terms to say that a charter gives rights. It operates by a contrary effect — that of taking rights away. Rights are inherently in all the inhabitants; but charters, by annulling those rights, in the majority, leave the right, by exclusion, in the hands of a few . . . They . . . consequently are instruments of injustice.

The fact, therefore, must be that the individuals, themselves, each, in his own personal and sovereign right, entered into a compact with each other to produce a government: and this is the only mode in which governments have a right to arise, and the only principle on which they have a right to exist.

The US Constitution correctly recognised that authors and inventors have a natural exclusive right to their writings and inventions (where exclusive – deriving from the individual’s natural right to privacy). However, while this right should certainly have been secured, it should never have been extended or substituted with the grant of monopolies. It just goes to show how appealing monopolies are to those interested in them that they were legislated anyway (in 1790), in spite of the Constitution.

What we see today is that copyright is not only a privilege that conflicts with individuals’ natural rights (their cultural liberty and freedom of speech), but a privilege that conflicts with the very nature of information and its communication. It is simply not possible (even for the state, let alone an individual), to remotely constrain the distribution of intellectual works, because it is not possible to remotely constrain the communication and diffusion of information (despite the snake oil that is DRM).

So, it is foolish to suggest either that copyright’s term is shortened (to 28 years, 28 weeks, or even 28 days later), or that those whose business may be seen to benefit from the use of another’s work should pay a share of their earnings. Such privilege is preposterous and an offense against both nature and man. It is a protection racket of those already corrupt and powerful, or of those who have become corrupted by unnatural power.

We earn a living from our work by exchanging it with the work of others, voluntarily. Money=work. There’s nothing wrong in exchanging our labour, in selling the music we make or the copies we make of others’. What’s wrong is in being unnaturally able to prevent anyone else doing so, or being able to demand a royalty. What we have a right to is the free exchange of our work or possessions (liberty). We do not have a right to give our work away and then demand payment for its possession, use, or reproduction. Such a ‘right’ would be appealing, but nature has not seen fit to imbue us with it.

Without unnatural monopoly, we’re still left with the natural ability to sell our music, and the ability to make and sell copies of it. However, there is no market for copies that people don’t need to buy (that a monopoly can no longer prevent being made). The market for musicians is in making music that people want to buy (in preference to, or in addition to, making their own).

The market for copies has ended. The market for music continues unabated. There is neither need nor sanction for monopoly or any other privilege.

I and umpteen thousand others may pay you a penny to write or sing a song, and you may consider that an equitable exchange. However, my audience can also pay me to sing that song and I don’t owe you a penny – naturally. That’s how it used to be, and that’s how it should be. We just have the embarrassment of three centuries in which we put up with a state granted privilege that had it otherwise.


1 That’s ‘of’ as in ‘authored by’, not as in ‘owned by’. It is an unfortunate ambiguity of the English language that possessive prepositions and pronouns are used for authorship/paternity as well as ownership or physical possession, especially when there’s considerable interest in some quarters for the meanings to become permanently conflated.

Ibutton77 said 4017 days ago :

(assuming it gets moderated in) I have commented on this thread:

Say, Billy mentioned making a new thread for discussing copyright. Do you know how one could find that Crosbie? Also, anywhere there did you link back to the answer you supplied here?

Crosbie Fitch said 4017 days ago :

Good comment. The penny rhyme is apposite.

There’s a copyright category and a thread The question of copyright.

I didn’t link back to the answer I supplied here, no.




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