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Stallman: An Internet-Connectivity Tax to Compensate Artists and Authors

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As reported by PC Pro, in EBooks are “attacking our freedom”, free software advocate Richard Stallman wants ebooks boycotted “until they ‘respect our freedom.’” He’s concerned about DRM in Kindle books, for example. Also: “‘Amazon requires users to identify themselves to get an eBook,’ Stallman claims, pointing out that printed book buyers can walk into a bookstore and make a cash purchase anonymously.”

I agree these are problems, but some are caused by IP (DRM and proprietary formats), while others are just part of the nature of this new way of delivering content: it has some advantages, and some disadvantages. In an IP free world, most of these problems/concerns would disappear or abate radically. So it is IP we ought to be fighting, not the business practices that will predictably arise in response to IP. Moreover, I think the concern about inability to buy books anonymously largely arises because we have an intrusive, snooping, criminal, dangerous state–a nosy nanny that people want to hide their activities from. But in a free society there this would not be the case, so there would probably not be as much need for anonymity in book purchases, since there could be no legal penalty imposed for reading the “wrong” kind of books.

In any case, Stallman proposes a bizarre use of tax funds to help solve this problem: “Stallman claims that eBook retailers can still support authors and retain buyers’ freedoms by distributing tax funds to authors based on their popularity, or by ‘designing players so users can send authors anonymous voluntary payments’.” It’s not clear here exactly what sort of “tax” he means–whether a real tax by the state, or some “tax” (i.e., fee) collected contractually by private retailers. But elsewhere, in discussing an “Internet Sharing License,” he seems to endorse the idea of the state making Internet Service Providers collect a “levy” (read: tax) from all Internet users, to distribute to authors and artists, with “each artist’s share” being determined “in direct proportion to her work’s popularity.”

In Freedom—or Copyright?, he is a bit more explicit:

Another good way to support music and the arts is with tax funds—perhaps a tax on blank media or on Internet connectivity. The state should distribute the tax money entirely to the artists, not waste it on corporate executives. But the state should not distribute it in linear proportion to popularity, because that would give most of it to a few superstars, leaving little to support all the other artists. I therefore recommend using a cube-root function or something similar. With linear proportion, superstar A with 1,000 times the popularity of a successful artist B will get 1,000 times as much money as B. With the cube root, A will get 10 times as much as B. Thus, each superstar gets a larger share than a less popular artist, but most of the funds go to the artists who really need this support. This system will use our tax money efficiently to support the arts.

Now it could be true that such a system would be better than copyright–copyright imposes a tax, too, but it is disguised and hidden. Maybe it would be better if it were out in the open and clearly seen as a tax and redistribution scheme. But, contra Stallman, it would still be bad. It seems bizarre to fear the lack of anonymity in a private transaction, while wanting the state to have anything to do with deciding which artists and authors get subsidized by taxpayers. (I’ve criticized Stallman and other leftist opponents of IP in Eben Moglen and Leftist Opposition to Intellectual Property and An Open Letter to Leftist Opponents of Intellectual Property: On IP and the Support of the State.)

Incidentally, this scheme seems to be the copyright analog of a similar proposal in the field of invention/patents–replacing or supplementing the patent system by using tax-funded “prizes” paid to useful technical innovations (What’s Worse: $80 Billion or $30 Million?; Libertarian Favors $80 Billion Annual Tax-Funded “Medical Innovation Prize Fund”; $30 Billion Taxfunded Innovation Contracts: The “Progressive-Libertarian” Solution).

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