Copyright and Author Starvation

Jason Epstein has a pretty thoughtful article in The New York Review of book about the future of digital publishing. It’s worth pointing out, however, that he engaged twice in a kind of badly overblown rhetoric about the consequences of a possible world in which copyright collapses and nobody can earn money selling books:

This future is a predictable inference from digitization in its current stage of development in the United States, its details widely discussed in the blogosphere by partisans of various outcomes, including the utopian fantasy that in the digital future content will be free of charge and authors will not have to eat. […]

Traditional territorial rights will become superfluous and a worldwide, uniform copyright convention will be essential. Protecting content from unauthorized file sharers will remain a vexing problem that raises serious questions about the viability of authorship, for without protection authors will starve and civilization will decline, a prospect recognized by the United States Constitution, which calls for copyright to sustain writers not primarily as a matter of equity but for the greater good of public enlightenment.

Obviously, if you couldn’t make money selling books it’s not that people would write books full-time and starve to death. Nor is it that nobody would write books. Instead, an even larger share of books would be written by people with jobs at universities or other non-profit organizations (this blog is free to read!) or grants of some kind. You’d also no doubt still have an endless flood of self-help books that serve as loss-leaders for conferences or other sources of revenue. Presumably if books were free, then municipalities and universities wouldn’t need to spend money acquiring books for libraries—maybe that would free up more money for grants and stipends to support the creation of new works.

Maybe in the future the United States will be an Yglesias-style social democracy, and committed authors will work part-time jobs secure in the knowledge that even low-income people are served by excellent health care & mass transit and can live in safe neighborhoods that feature good schools for their kids. Or maybe it will be a Brazil-style center of massive inequality and authors will be patronized by vain billionaires.

I dunno. I don’t want to be too pollyannish about this. Realistically, all of the scenarios I can think of still lead to fewer books being published. And maybe more but more expensive books better serves the “greater good of public enlightenment.” Or maybe fewer but cheaper books does. Epstein, to his credit, has the right criteria in mind. But the subject of what actually meets that criteria deserves serious consideration. Books were being published, after all, long before there was effective copyright enforcement.