Schopenhauer on the Pernicious Influence of Copyright on Writing

Modern debates on the ‘intellectual property’ front involve several, overlapping, recurring themes. One persistent pair of inter-related concerns is: How are creators, authors, artists, ‘content producers’, and the like to be compensated for their ‘contributions’ to our commons? and, How indispensable are the protections of the various legal regimes that are termed ‘intellectual property’ (and its related economic arrangements) for the continued sustenance and facilitation of ‘artistic production’? The answering of these questions almost invariably involves a reckoning with fundamental issues of artistic motivation and innovation. The pedigree of those kinds of debates is, of course, older than modern Internet-related intellectual property disputes, and unsurprisingly enough, the pronouncements of those who have approached the puzzles of artistic provenance in the past are relevant for them. Sometimes those pronouncements can be especially, pointedly, on target and serve as useful reminders that skepticism about ‘intellectual property’ predates the Internet.

From Arthur Schopenauer’s “On Authorship and Style” (from Essays of Schopenhauer, University of Adelaide E-books repository):

There are, first of all, two kinds of authors: those who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognised by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.

Consequently, it is soon recognised that they write for the sake of filling up the paper, and this is the case sometimes with the best authors….As soon as this is perceived the book should be thrown away, for time is precious. As a matter of fact, the author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money and preservation of copyright are, at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing. What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. It seems as if money lay under a curse, for every author deteriorates directly he writes in any way for the sake of money. The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay….The deplorable condition of the literature of to-day…is due to the fact that books are written for the sake of earning money. Every one who is in want of money sits down and writes a book, and the public is stupid enough to buy it.

Incidental aside: The indictment of writing-as-if-paid-by-the-word is pungent and on point; the wisdom of “I coulda written less but I didn’t have the time” lives on.

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