A World Without Copyright

In discussions on Hacker News I’ve said several times that I think copyright should be abolished. Some people agree, but I often get a reply asking how I expect programmers, musicians, or authors to make a living in such a world.

Before I address that question, I’ll take a brief digression. While I’m all for abolishing copyright, that doesn’t mean I’m against all property rights. Physical property rights are a good thing. With a physical thing, the number of people who can derive value from it simultaneously is limited. If anyone could take my computer from me at any time, it would be worthless to me. Why pay money for it in the first place if I can’t control how it’s used?

Creative works covered by copyright are (mostly) not physical. I’m talking about things like songs or novels (as opposed to the physical paper book containing that novel). If you create a song and I copy it, you’ve lost nothing. Maybe you haven’t gained, but I certainly haven’t removed your ability to enjoy the song.

Whether or not you support copyright, I hope we can agree that physical things and data are fundamentally different.

Copyright laws were initially established to encourage creative people to create stuff. The thought was that protection from unauthorized copying would allow these creators to actually make a living creating things. Presumably, this leads to a better society, with more and better art, music, software, travel books, etc.

This made (some) sense when these laws were created, but modern technology has made such laws obsolete.

Here’s how a world without copyright might work.

The right to release (or not)

Just because copyright should be abolished doesn’t mean that there should be no rights for creators. The primary right in a world without copyright will be the right to choose whether to release a work. When you create a new work in private, no one but you has the right to make it public.

Releasing should be an intentional act. For example, if you perform a song in a club or on the street corner, you’ve released it. If you share your novel on the Internet, you’ve released it.

This right to release definitely needs some detail work. You should be able to share your novel with a friend without having that be considered a release. Maybe you just want some feedback. Maybe it’s just intended as a private work for the two of you. The line between public “performance” and private sharing is tricky. When in doubt, we should err on the side of the creator’s stated intention. If the creator says that she had no intention to release a work, that should count for a lot in a legal case.

Once something is released, that’s irrevocable. You can refuse to release changes to that work, but you can’t declare an existing work unreleased. That would be tantamount to enforcing copyright laws, and those have been abolished.

Entertainment (music, tv/film, novels, art)

Let’s start with music. Music has been around a long time, long before the first copyright law (1710). If we abolish copyright, I think it’s obvious that music won’t disappear.

But that doesn’t answer the question of how musicians can make money in a world without copyright.

Performers will still be able to make money performing. Copyright has nothing to do with the viability of charging for live performances. Yes, it will now be legal to record the performance and distribute that recording, but I don’t think that will hurt concerts. I regularly go to concerts to listen to music for which I have recordings. Concerts are an experience that combines music with the space its in, plus the fact that you’re there with other people. Recordings are not a substitute for this experience. If they were, concerts would have died out long ago as recording and playback technology advanced.

But what about the creation of new music? What incentive does an artist have to create an album if they can’t sell that album?

The model for new music creation in a world without copyright is Kickstarter.

Look at Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter project for her new album. She’s raised $951,000 already! That’s more than enough to fund the creation of the album, cover the cost of backer reward creation and distribution, and pay for living expenses while all this is happening.

If she released this new album under a Creative Commons license, what would she lose? Well, she might lose the prospect of making some more money. But still, she’s already raised enough to complete the primary goal of creating a new album and supporting herself while she does so.

This is the world without copyright. Artists declare their intent to create a new work, and people who want that work to exist pay for it.

What about new artists? Well, that won’t be so different from how things work right now. I doubt Amanda made much money when she started out. She probably played a lot of free shows, or shows where she got paid almost nothing. She probably invested a lot of time in writing songs and practicing without any guarantee of making money. Now, after years of practice and refinement, she’s built up a solid fan base (which she deserves because she is awesome).

Artists will have to do the same work as they do now. You invest a lot of time and energy in the hope of building up a fan base willing to spend money on your work. Eventually, if you’re good and you work hard and you’re lucky, you can make a living being a full time artist.

There are some differences in a world without copyright. The income ceiling for a musician will be much lower. Right now, an artist like Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber can sell millions and millions of copies. If the artist makes just $1 per copy, they can become quite wealthy. Then there’s licensing fees for films, TV shows, commercials, covers, etc. It’s a nice chunk of change.

In a world without copyright, you get paid to create the work, and you can also make money from concerts. You don’t get paid per sale (there are no “sales”) and you don’t make money from licensing. You might also be able to make some extra money selling extra like shirts, posters, etc. Yes, others could copy them and sell them too, but in practice I doubt there’d be much incentive for this. This is especially true for concert merch, where buying it at the concert is part of the appeal.

If Lady Gaga couldn’t make millions and millions of dollars, would she still create albums? I have no idea. Would it be a loss to society? I don’t think so. While some musicians may be motivated solely by the desire to become incredibly wealthy, most aren’t. There are enough musicians who just want to make great music.

The biggest impact will probably be all the middlemen, like record companies, agents, marketing companies, Apple’s iTunes store, Amazon, etc. Some of these might disappear entirely, but not all. Inasmuch as they provide a valuable service, they’ll still exist. An up and coming musician will find value in marketing and advertising if it helps them find an audience willing to fund their next work and attend concerts. The professions that exist entirely to squeeze money out of legal restrictions on copying bits around will disappear.

The picture for film, TV shows (aka serialized films), and novels is similar. The highest paid performers and creators will be paid much less, but these things will all still exist. The higher cost and greater complexity of films and TV shows probably means that studios will still exist in some form. Putting together a crew and managing the creation of a TV show is incredibly complex. It also costs a lot of money to create even one show.

The studios will exist to fund the creation of pilots. Instead of pilots being approved or rejected by a few studio execs, they’ll now be put on the Internet for all to see. If people like the pilot, they’ll back the Kickstarter(-ish) project for episodes 2-10. If they like those, they’ll back episodes 11-20, and so on. The projects will priced at a point that funds the creation of the project itself, as well as providing some additional funds that can be put into further pilots.

Films will be a little different. You don’t really make a pilot. Instead, maybe you’ll create a trailer, or publish the script.

For both film and TV, directors and writers with a strong track record will be able to raise funds based on the strength of their name. I’d pay out of pocket for a new TV show from Joss Whedon without needing to see a pilot.

But the age of the film star being paid $20 million for six months of work will be over. The top film stars may make a few hundred thousand a year. The people who wanted to get into film solely to get rich will choose a different profession. Just as with music, there will still be plenty of people who want to do this work for love of the work itself.

Novels are a no-brainer. They’re incredibly cheap to produce. All you need to do is keep one author alive for the length of time it takes to write it. Let’s say that time is six months. Can an author raise $15,000 for one novel? $25,000? $50,000? Those all seem quite possible. If you can’t raise that much, you can write and hold down a part-time job. You won’t be the first author who’s had to do that.

What about non-fiction books, films, etc.? Some of these things are still essentially creative. A good documentary film is as much a work of art as it is reporting. Some non-fiction works are mostly functional, like restaurant guides or travel books. If customers find these useful, they will be funded. If they can’t be funded, something else will replace them. Maybe nobody wants to fund a travel book, but they’re okay with viewing ads on a site like Tripadvisor.


So what about other works of art? Most visual art involves the creation of a physical product like a sculpture or a painting. I don’t see a world without copyright affecting these much. If an artist makes money by selling physical objects now, copyright laws don’t affect them. Those few artists who make money from reproductions of their work will make less, but I suspect that’s a tiny minority.

In almost every visual art form, the original differs from an reproduction. An original oil painting is not the same as a print.

The only visual art where this isn’t the case is photography. With the advent of digital photography, there’s no such thing as “the original photo”. If people find value in photography as art, they will pay for photographic artists to create new works, just like with music, film, etc.

I can’t imagine there are many photographers making a living purely from art photography. I’d guess that most of them spend at least part of their time creating works for hire (portraits, journalism, etc.). These works for hire will be just as valuable in a world without copyright.


The existence of Free/Open Source Software shows us that people will create software and give it away, often without being paid. Besides free software, a lot of software is created as a work for hire. Companies have internal teams of programmers that create software for use inside that company as opposed to selling that software or offering it as a service.

The creation of software that you buy to install on your own computer will obviously change. Microsoft will no longer be able to sell you a “copy” of Windows 10. However, if enough people find value in Windows, maybe they’ll fund a project to create Windows 10.

Software as a service is an interesting case. Does making software available for people to use on equipment you control constitute a release? The purist in me wishes it would. I think the world would be a lot better off if companies like Google and Facebook had to release their software. But clearly this is an area that needs more thought.

Even if providing software as a service constitutes a release, there will still be a very large market for software. We will still want something like Google.

There’s more to creating software than just creating software. Google is a lot more than their code. They’re also the people who have the knowledge to build software at Google scale, to maintain their data centers with thousands (millions?) of computers, and to build new products that people want to use. If building all this were easy then Google would have lots of competitors. Simple having Google’s software won’t magically let some other company compete with them effectively.

Of course, Google can continue to run ads, which is their primary source of income. If people don’t want ads, they can fund the creation of an ad-free Google competitor. That’s no small task. I suspect that in a world without copyright, a company like Google will do just fine.

Even without copyright, software will still be a thriving business.


Journalism is already struggling in a world with copyright. We can already see journalism moving from “pay to read” to free online sites like Salon, Slate, etc.1 Many magazines and newspapers publish their content online as well.

Again, inasmuch as people find value in this content, they will pay for it one way or another. Either they’ll tolerate ads on sites or they’ll fund the site directly. I pay $60 a year to subscribe to Linux Weekly News, despite the fact that all of the content they publish is made freely available within a few weeks of initial publication. I do this because I find their content valuable, and I want them to continue creating it.

I imagine that the future of journalism will also involve micropayments. Companies like Flattr are working on exactly this idea. If I could easily arrange to pay Salon (and Slate and The Economist and a few other sites) a few dollars per year, I might do it. If a million other people join me, there’s a real business model there for the content producers.

I’m not sure what the future is for journalism, but I don’t think it’s about locking up content with strict copyright enforcement.

In a world without copyright, content producers are paid to do the work of producing content. They aren’t paid to grant me the right to flip some bits on my hard drive in a certain order.

A world without copyright is not a world without art, software, or journalism. It’s not a world without services for content providers either. If a service offers real value, that service will continue to exist. It that service simply charges digital rent, it will disappear.

Ultimately, I think a world without copyright will be a world with more creative works, not fewer. Middlemen also act as gatekeepers, and their incentives skew towards not taking risks. If you can raise the funds to produce your own album or film, you can make it, and you don’t need an record label or studio to bless your work. That part of the world without copyright is nearly here, if it’s not here already.

We may already be moving towards a world without copyright. People who don’t believe in the validity of copyright are acting on that belief. They’re copying creative works without paying for a license, releasing free software, creating listener-funded podcasts, and even starting political parties. It may be that twenty years from now we really will live in a world without copyright.


nukemarine, on 2012-05-28 20:27, said:
Good article, but you should add that the distribution model of tv shows and movies will change. It will still be studio productions, but no longer will there be uncontrolled broadcasts. Instead, there will be a shift where broadcasts will be encoded, sent to known users paying a subscription and electronically tagged to identify any user that releases this content to the broader public.

It’ll be the online equivalent of a movie theater. Each individual will pay and bad behaviour can get you removed.

Software will have similar protections put in place. They’ll lock down not just the sourcecode, but require online verification. Likely, there will be customer identifiers placed into the software to identify bad faith releasers. The user is still free to try.

In all this, the government will not get involved. No copyright means that once you decide to distribute your work, you accept there’ll be risks of others copying that work for resale.

Dave Rolsky, on 2012-05-28 20:36, said:
@nukemarine: This is a good point to consider. Even absent copyright content producers will still try to lock down content. I think history tells us this never works. If you let people listen to music/watch a video/etc then eventually someone will crack it.

As long as such cracking is legal (which it absolutely should be), I imagine that eventually producers will give up on this sort of silliness.

Zbigniew Łukasiak, on 2012-05-29 03:18, said:
There is good data backing the part about musicians in ‘The Case for Copyright Reform’ (http://www.copyrightreform.eu/). It appears that in countries like Sweden and Norway selling copies of music has shrunk in the recent years, probably because of internet and file sharing, but the overall earnings by the industry was mostly constant because people shifted the money from buying discs to buying tickets and the big news is that because of this musicians earn more (and there are more musicians) because they get a bigger share of ticket sales.

The two articles that support this in a direct way are:

http://ec.europa.eu/avpolicy/docs/other_actions/col_2009/pub/kth_annex.pdf (the link in ‘The Case …’ is dated - this is a new one).


Shawn H Corey, on 2012-05-29 07:29, said:
Copyright never protected the artist or writer, for a simple reason. Only the rich can afford to enforce a copyright. Copyright is used by the big content companies to force artists and writers to accept their terms for payment. Have you ever read a contract offered by them? Artists and writers will make *more* money without copyright.

Michael Peters, on 2012-05-29 10:37, said:
One thing you’ve left out of your comments is that copyright also gives the producer some control over how their creation is used. For instance, a politician (or political group) wants to use an artists song but the artist refuses because of what the politician stands for. Or someone releases free software but with a non-military-use clause.

Copyright isn’t just about money, but about having some control over how your creation is used or what it’s used to represent.

  1. That was true in 2012 when I first wrote this, but now in 2020 it looks like things are starting to swing back to paid subscriptions with limited (or no) free access. But I stand by what I say next, which is that if people want this content they will fund it somehow. ↩︎