A Right to be Paid for Writing?

The other day I came across a commentary in the Libertarian e-zine Prometheus Unbound, in which the commenter declared that while writers, maybe, should be paid for their work, they had no right to be paid, essentially because ideas should not be able to be copyrighted. After I got over my disbelief, and swallowed my anger, I got to thinking about the question… and decided that the commenter was not only misguided, but an idiot.

While I’d be the first to admit that ideas are central and crucial to my work, frankly, that’s not why most people buy books.  Nor are ideas the difficult part of writing, as most authors, if they’re honest, will admit.  What takes work is the process of creating a work of entertainment than embodies those ideas in a way that draws in readers.  Readers buy works of fiction to be entertained, and it takes me, and every author I know, months, if not longer, to create and provide that entertainment in novel form. By the fallacious logic suggested by this Libertarian idiot, no one in any field has the right to be paid for their work.

Why?  Because the vast majority of occupations in a modern society require the combination of ideas and knowledge with the physical effort required to put those ideas into practice, whether in providing a service or a physical product.  Just how long would any society last if doctors, dentists, teachers, plumbers, electricians, salespeople, and almost any occupation [except perhaps politicians] did not have to be paid, except at the whim of those who used their skills and services?  Not very long.

No one is forced to buy books, mine or anyone else’s, but if they do want to read something produced by an author, why shouldn’t they pay for it?  It’s one thing to question the marketing of books, and the prices that various publishers, distributors, and booksellers charge… or even to question how authors should be paid and how much.  But to claim that a creator doesn’t have a right to be paid if someone uses something that took months to produce, that’s not Libertarian, as I understood it.  Except… I looked into it and discovered that there are actually two forms of Libertarianism, one which recognizes private property of the individual as basis of societal order and one which believes in community property, i.e., socialist communalism. Obviously, the commentator belongs to the second group, because he is saying that a novel, which as a physical form of entertainment [not an idea], belongs without cost to the community. I may be a bit old-fashioned, but that doesn’t strike me as Libertarian, but as confiscatory socialism.

All professional authors know full well that there are no original plots and very few truly original ideas in fiction, but to say that authors have no right to be paid for what they produce out of those ideas because these plots and ideas aren’t original is about as valid as saying that a doctor shouldn’t be paid because all doctors know the same medical knowledge.

Knowledge without application is useless and worthless; it’s the application of knowledge that takes work, and for that work the worker has a right to compensation. One can argue and bargain about the amount and the method of payment, but the principle of pay for honest work is fundamental to any functional society.

As I’ve noted before, the idea that information wants to be free is little more than saying people want as much as they can get from other people without paying, and that’s being an intellectual freeloader, not a what I’d call a true Libertarian… but what do I know?


13 thoughts on “A Right to be Paid for Writing?”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    I wonder if the writer in the e-zine was paid – or hoped to be paid, even eventually – for his work.

    And Libertarians should be the FIRST people paying for something – even if they want to negotiate the price before reading, they should be willing to pay for the honest work put into the piece. Not much of a libertarian if he doesn’t believe in fair wages for fair work.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Concur with Wine Guy – that makes no sense from a libertarian, at least not as described. You’re under no obligation to release any of your works, and if you do, you’re entitled to set the terms (and ultimately the buyer is free to accept or reject them, or deal with some intermediary that has negotiated a better deal using bulk buying power or whatever).

    But I’d feel better agreeing if I’d read the article myself. Ideas are not property. Even copyrights and patents are to further the arts and sciences for the common good (by providing an incentive for such creative activity), and not to establish fiefdoms in mindspace.

    And a libertarian of all folks should have understood the distinction. So I wonder whether they really thought they were entitled to free services, or whether they simply did a very poor job of making themselves understood.

  3. Given the two “schools” of libertarianism, it could be either.

  4. Derek says:

    From the Rand school, that ‘libertarian’ sounds more like a thief and a looter…

  5. Mayhem says:

    Two relevant quotes.

    Libertarianism, like Leninism, is an attractive, internally consistent ideology which provides a prescription for achieving a utopian society populated entirely by frictionless perfectly spherical human beings.


    You’ll never see a poor libertarian.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    Or a Progressive who didn’t think that things would work better were they in charge of all the effort and all the money. Which includes none of their own.

    (I like the frictionless, spherical human image. Very nice)

  7. Derek says:

    I like to look at libertarianism as a safe ideological starting point that for practical purposes can and ought be bastardized. Ideological purity is overrated anyway.

  8. Joe says:

    Copyright does not strike me to be an inalienable right, at the same level as freedom for instance: It’s just one way of ensuring writers get paid.

    Prior to copyright, many creators were supported by patrons, or by the performance of their work. Shakespeare’s plays for instance were written before copyright.

    It would not surprise me if copyright were displaced in the coming century by another mechanism to fund creators. I do not however dispute the need to fund creative activity, if one wants its fruits.

    1. Nate says:

      The problem with Shakespeare as an example is that if it had been left to Shakespeare to preserve his plays we would have almost none of them. Because there was no copyright, if you published something it was available to anybody to use. So Shakespeare never published anything.

      It was only after his death that two of the actors from his company, John Heminges and Henry Condell compiled and published the first folio. So who knows what other great plays we would have access to, if they had been preserved through a copyright process.

      I suppose that doesn’t rise to the level of unalienable right, but it sure provides a really good exigence and salience argument for copyright.

  9. Andrew says:

    Atlas Shrugged, anyone?

  10. Amy K says:

    Andrew, I couldn’t agree more. As I read the blog, I just sat shaking my head, thinking “What would John Galt do?” But of course I already know the answer…

  11. Joe says:

    @LEM: You may find Paulo Coelho’s experience interesting


  12. Brian Kelman says:

    I would not want to hang out with this person; laying on a guilt trip for the purpose of manipulating those around them appears to comes naturally. This is part of a much larger malaise originating from a certain part of the political spectrum that is trying to make Canada and the USA fell guilty about having prosperity, wealth, natural resources, energy resources and developed economies. What is forgotten is the hard work, labour and sacrifice that has been applied over time into a single book or the creation of the society that we live in. For example, I’ve actually heard someone apologize for his material possessions because he is a successful electrician.

    I believe Freud got a lot of things wrong, but in ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ he believed that ‘guilt’ will destroy the individual and our civilization. This ‘Libertarian’ and his ilk are using ‘guilt’ to destroy those who create because they themselves are unable to.

Leave a Reply to Andrew Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *