Why the Current Copyright System Neither Guarantees Nor Provides a Fair Wage

There are many people who believe that a worker should be given his due/just wages (see especially Luke 10:7; Rom 4:4), including myself. But then (well-meaning) people use this to argue that we must then respect intellectual “property” with something very similar to our current copyright system (never mind that most publishers copyright troll and do not put out a good-faith effort to examine if an alleged infringement on copyright is actually fair use and that authors usually gain nothing from royalties) and that that is the only way of viewing intellectual “property.”

I do not think current copyright systems actually reward the work of an author well (if at all!). This is a response I wrote to someone who has read the Poythress article (written from a Christian standpoint) and respectfully disagrees with Poythress’ claims that one has a right to copy someone else’s ideas.

Difficulty arises when one supports copyright (and patenting, though perhaps/arguably to a lesser extent). To do so presupposes that someone has a completely original idea. (See the Everything Is A Remix video series for a visual explanation of why this is fallacious.) Companies now are abusing copyright and limiting ideas/vague concepts, specifically to prevent others from using this. Basically, whoever runs to the copyright office has the last laugh? How this benefits the public is a mystery. The public gets nothing (no new innovation) from this.

Again, using and borrowing ideas is not theft. From Poythress’ article:

The Bible does talk about theft. It is not theft to breathe air or drink water out of a stream, because no human being owns these things.

Can humans really copyright an idea? Most intellectual “properties” are ideas/concepts. To grant that they have exclusive control over these ideas seems to pervert justice and consolidate power in the hands of a select few.

Poythress then goes on to argue that the Biblical authors would have found intellectual “property” to be a foreign concept:

The same principles hold when copying information. Suppose Joe buys a manuscript from Abe. He may make one or ten copies of the manuscript, without paying anyone. He may give these away or sell them. And anyone who buys one may make further copies, or pay scribes for the labor of making copies. The human authors of biblical books quote freely from older books, and this alone should show that people had the freedom to copy either ideas or words [emphasis mine]. But that implies that ideas and words and sentences are not “property.” They are free as the air is free.

Poythress then argues that modern practice shows that copyright is not truly property:

One aspect of modern practice actually confirms this principle that information is not permanently, exclusively owned property. Modern practice allows copyrights and patents to extend for a certain number of years. And then they expire [again, emphasis mine]. A patent typically lasts for only twenty years. After that period the patented procedure can be followed by anyone without paying any fee. Similarly, copyrights expire after a number of years.

For Poythress, the main issue is this:

Copying is also an implication of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). I can help my neighbor and express love to him by giving him a copy of what I own, or allowing him to make a copy.

What copyright law does is make it impossible for a law-abiding Christian to both submit to his authorities and share with his neighbor something he wants to copy for his neighbor. In other words, one manifestation of loving one’s neighbor is made illegal.

Poythress’ pragmatic appeal [found later in the article and also in personal conversation with him] is that when he shared some of his books freely, his books (and the books of others which were freely downloadable online) reportedly sold more because people could access the pdf file online and allow people to preview the whole book before purchasing. Also, on a side note, donations for gratitude may also be a viable economic model.

And one more thing: pragmatism or the want for more publishable works is a pragmatic (and important) concern but not an ethical one. Workers ought to receive just compensation, but is it just to force others not to share in order to recoup cost for one’s work? Even this statement is based on the expectation that one will be paid based on how well the product sells (i.e. this “wage” is commission-based, and not labor-based). Perhaps it seems that the olden-day economic model of patronage is more fitting to the biblical concept of just wages. If an author/writer is paid up front at a set rate/wage for his work, the author is valued more.

Alternatively, one could shorten copyright from lifetime + 70 years to something more reasonable (like 1-5 years), and this could be a pragmatic solution that is not based on any ethical foundation. I do not think the paltry royalties given to authors in most cases is actually just in terms of paying fair wages. Rather, it seems like for a scholar to be commissioned to work on something, this can and is sponsored by a paid sabbatical or some other patron…the money comes from sponsorship, not from the royalties of whatever book they have published.

In conclusion, the Bible does not teach anything that supports copyright and intellectual property. Christians can be part of a market. However, using market forces to determine (generally paltry) royalties (i.e. getting a next-to-nothing commission based on how much the public values a work) is not at all biblical (though this does not thus mean unbiblical/anti-biblical). A fair wage implies a standard/value judgment, and while humans are called to be wise, nevertheless, value and justice is determined by God. What if an author writes a good book that the public does not value and thus receives no royalties? Is that a just/fair wage? Or what if an author writes a terrible book (like 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight) and gets a lot of money from this? Does this author receive a just wage? No and no! I do not wish to suggest that the market is usually flawed or cannot reward people justly. But I must affirm that God imparts value and determines justice, not the market! The market rewards based on consumer demand, not labor.

UPDATE: See my op-ed post that argues that the Bible supports copying (and not copyright).


2 thoughts on “Why the Current Copyright System Neither Guarantees Nor Provides a Fair Wage

  1. Pingback: Government Overreach and Abuse of Power in Copyright Law | Home of Uninterpreted Facts

  2. Pingback: Bibleworks Using Guilt-Manipulation! How Un-Christian! | Home of Uninterpreted Facts

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