Copyright is Not a Business Model

Screenwriter David Simon, known for his work writing television series that include Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire and Treme, launched his blog this week by arguing that charging for content is a defense of copyright. Well, he actually re-launched the blog, something I’ll come back to in a minute.

As reported by Jason Boog at GalleyCat, Simon claims “anything that says content should be free makes it hard for all writers, everywhere.” He goes on to say:

“If at any point in the future, this site offers more than a compendium of old prose work and the odd comment or two on recent events — if it grows in purpose or improves in execution — I might try to toss up a small monthly charge in support of one of the 501c3 charities listed in the Worthy Causes section.”

I like Simon’s work (Homicide was one of a few must-watch series for me in the 1990s), but his argument falls flat for a reason articulated at the Copyright Clearance Center’s recent conference: copyright is not a business model.

Dating back to the Statute of Anne, copyright became law as part of an effort to balance the private incentive to create new work with the public good that comes from unfettered access to knowledge and creative effort. It was not written to guarantee that creative works earned enough revenue to sustain their originators.

Simon’s assessment that “Writers everywhere do this to make a living, and some are doing fine work and barely getting by for their labor” is not about copyright. It’s about a set of business models focused on reducing the cost of content, including the wages paid writers.

Although Simon dismisses “free” as inimical to the needs of writers, he’s actually using it here to serve an end. “If it grows in purpose or improves in execution” is a test, a test of the power of free to build an audience.

He’s entitled to do that. He’s also entitled to post (with permission) a review of Treme from the Times-Picayune, something Simon did when he first launched his blog in 2010.

Of course, one might reasonably ask why he didn’t just link to the Times-Picayune site, a move that would have potentially given them traffic and a shot at earning digital dimes. Instead, he posted it for all us to see for free. Apparently the principle matters, unless it doesn’t.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.