Tim Parks Overrates the Indispensability of Copyright Regimes

Tim Parks has an interesting article on copyright over at the New York Review of Books Blog. (Parks concentrates almost exclusively on copyright for literary works and does not mention movies or software executables.)  There are some interesting observations in it, which lead up to a puzzling conclusion. Roughly, copyright law is indispensable because it facilitates the creation of a very particular kind of literary work: the long-form novel. Writing novels attracts the best and the brightest, and they get into that line of work because of its financial rewards. So:

Copyright, we see, is not essentially driven by notions of justice or theories of ownership, but by a certain culture’s attachment to a certain literary form.

I disagree. And I think Parks should disagree with himself too, because in his own article he also makes note of the following:

[T]here is still an enormous demand for the long traditional novel, for works that reinforce the idea of individual identity projected through time and achieving some kind of wisdom or happiness through many vicissitudes. There is simply no form of escapism, mental immersion, or sustained illusion quite like the thousand-page fantasy narrative…if to have that experience we have to guarantee a substantial income to its creator then society will continue to find a way to do that….

Note that Parks admits: a) the demand for a particular kind of sustained fantasy expressible–for him–in one kind of art form and b) the ability of society to find ways to fund its production. How does this then, lead to the conclusion that copyright is the only way to do so? This is a remarkably impoverished view of our society’s capacity to find ways to recompense the creators of desirable ‘products.’

Parks all too easily dismisses any possibility of comparison with the world of music, which is slowly moving toward displacing the primacy of the copyrighted recording in favor of the live performance:

There is no such performative context for the prose thriller, or even the great American novel.

None? The success of live story-telling performances should indicate there could be a thriving audience for writers willing to read out their works. Audiobooks also indicate that some folks do not mind having books read out to them.

Furthermore, for a novelist, Parks seems to be lacking in imagination when it comes to thinking of alternatives to the long-form novel.  Is the novel really the only kind of creative work that can ‘reinforce the idea of individual identity projected through time…’? And movie fans like me will disagree too, with Parks that ‘there is simply no form of escapism, mental immersion, or sustained illusion quite like the thousand-page fantasy narrative.’ But even if we were to grant Parks this claim, it still seems dubious that the monopoly rent model of copyright is the only way to keep ’em comin’ in.

The modern novel–perhaps beginning with Don Quixote–and modern copyright regimes do not track each other quite as precisely as Parks’ thesis would seem to require. Copyright regimes have created a particular kind of political economy around the world of writing. If they are dispensed with, when the smoke clears, writers will still be writing and we, the insatiable consumers of fantasy that makes our lives more livable, will have, somehow, like good junkies, found the way to keep the fixes coming. A legal regime like that of copyright is merely a contingent, not essential, feature of that addiction.

One thought on “Tim Parks Overrates the Indispensability of Copyright Regimes

  1. You bring up a number of good points when it comes to the copyright regime. One thing that has always bothered me about a few artists is the lack of perception they have towards their consumers. They’re completely unaware of the fact that the middlemen benefit the most from these copyright laws, especially in a monetary sense.

    If the labels, publishers, studios stopped trying to balance their annual incomes, the people who make the art could get paid better.

    Anyway, just my opinion on things 🙂

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