I didn't know who Taylor Swift was until a couple of days ago. That is not surprising since I have learned that she is a country music star. Despite growing up in a family that frequently played country music on the radio I never developed an appreciation for songs about liking one's dog and missing one's wife because a dunder-headed man got drunk one too many times. Not only do I find the lyrics to be insipid, the twang that seems to accompany the music of every country song grates upon my eardrums like fingernails on a chalkboard. But the Welsh motto is live and let live so I do not disparage those who find aesthetic enjoyment from country music.
Ms. Swift came to my attention because of an open letter she posted recently somewhere on the internet that received a lot of scrutiny. The purpose of her letter was to address what she considered to be injustices involved in Apple's use of her songs in a new music service Apple has offered to the public. Let me be the first to confess that I am not up on all of the current music services offered on the internet. I still play my music on a CD player. It was a significant personal challenge for me to move from a one CD changer to a six CD changer. My wife has tried to get me to do all sorts of "I-things" with various musical devices but I have always resisted because they seem unnecessarily complicated to me. A CD I understand. Push it in and the music starts. Press the button and it stops. I can do without all of the fancy electronic gadgets.
Taylor's main beef, as I understand it, has to do with royalties she receives each time of one her songs is played, or downloaded, or purchased, or something, via the Apple program. I know the music business has been running to the government of the Socialist Democracy of Amerika ever since I was born asking for protection of its alleged right to charge a surcharge every time a song is played on the public airwaves. Swift's complaint is just another on a long list coming from artists who believe that once they create a song and sell it to the public they have a right to derive income from that song for the rest of their lives. That is the issue I would like to address today. In economics it is referred to as "copyright" and it has been a political hot button throughout the history of this sad country. Although Ms. Swift is the impetus for this post, and a true economic nit-wit, you should not conclude that I am singling her out for her stupidity. Anyone who believes in the moral propriety of copyrights is equally ill informed and, quite possibly, a worshiper of government.
The dubious rational basis for the belief in copyright is the proposition that if I have created an item of tangible or intellectual or creative property and then sold that property to the public, I have a moral right to derive an exclusive stream of income from that property for a period of time to be determined by the government. The government enforces copyrights by refusing to allow any other person to derive any income from that protected property until the officially determined period of time ends. Once a copyright expires the property is then described as being in the public domain and it may be used in any way the public deems desirable without penalty or the requirement to pay a royalty to the original creator.
Artists love copyright because it allows them to make money for doing nothing. I once read that the richest prisoner in the federal prison system was the fellow who co-wrote the song "Layla" back in the 1970s. Ever time that song has been played he has received a couple of pennies. Over time that built up to a huge reserve of cash. Since the co-author was in prison there was not much to spend his money on and his royalty checks built up over the years. If he ever gets out he will have a rich retirement, I am sure. The point is, once a copyright on a song has been granted the author of the song gets paid every time it is played, sold or distributed. Capture lighting in a bottle with a hit song and you can sit back and let the cash roll in the rest of your life.
Copyright is a government granted and enforced monopoly to profits that is almost always defended as necessary by strictly utilitarian arguments. We are told that if an entreprenuer is not granted monopoly profits for a number of years he would not expend the time, energy and resources to first create a new good. That may or may not be true. I really don't care because utilitarian arguments are irrelevant. The only question that needs to be answered is this....is a copyright moral? The answer to that question is simple. NO!
The government has no right to grant monopoly privileges to special groups of people. The government has no right to tell other groups of people that they can't do something because someone else already holds a government copyright, patent or any alleged right to monopoly profits. The government has no right to determine how long a particular person or group can garner monopoly profits before the good in question becomes public domain. Indeed, the entire concept of granting monopoly profits hinges on a complete and total misunderstanding of the right to private property. If a singer writes and song he is free to keep it to himself. Nobody has a moral claim on his song and as long as he keeps it to himself nobody can earn any money by reproducing it. But when a singer decides to take the song that he has written and sell it to someone else, as is the case when an Apple customer downloads a song, the singer gives up all rights of control over that song. That song is no longer his exclusive property. The person who paid the fee to download the song is now the exclusive owner of that song and he is free to do anything he wants with it, including reproducing it and selling it to others.
All attempts to control the use of items that are sold to others after the point of sale are immoral. Unless the sales contract specifically says that certain uses of the good are not permitted after the point of sale the person making the purchase is free to do whatever he wants with the good he has purchased. In reality, if a sales contract does reserve the right to determine how a good can be used by a purchaser after the purchase it is not technically a sale. It is a rental. Rental contracts can specify how a item is to be used. Sales contracts give up all of those rights. Vain attempts to control the future use of a good by declaring that purchasing the item is a tacit agreement to not reproduce it in the future, as software companies do all the time, are immoral precisely because the seller of the good cannot specify those conditions of future use for a good he no longer owns. When I buy something from you it is no longer yours. It is mine and I am free to do with it what I want. If you don't like that then don't sell it to me. What you cannot do is invoke the coercive power of government to try and force me to only use the good I purchased from you in a particular way.
Musicians will decry the doctrine of the immorality of monopoly profits because they believe sales of their music will decline, and that may be true. But that is the nature of the free market. Nobody has the right to control the behavior of others. When you sell something to someone else you give up all control over what you have sold. If musicians do not like that they should go into another line of work. Better yet, if musicians want to make more money they should hit the road and tour. There is plenty of money to be made, especially if they have a couple of hit songs, from playing for live audiences. If Taylor Swift does not like that she can marry a drunken wife beater with a dog. That will give her plenty of fodder for future songs. What she needs to stop doing is running to the government and demanding that the government enforce her immoral monopoly.