Sat Jun 13th, 2009 at 09:16:49 AM EST
With the shift from "stuff" to "intellectual property" we are seeing a new type of law emerge. It started with changes to the traditional copyright concept, first by extending it to things other than the written word and then by lengthening its duration beyond what anyone had originally contemplated.
In addition the control of copyrighted material has been extended, notwithstanding the existence of the concept of fair use. Snippets of music that appear in other's music must now be cleared for use and paid for. Even images of things in public spaces, like skyscrapers, are demanding payment if the image features in a movie.
Right now we are in the midst of what may turn out to be an epic battle between publishers, authors and Google over the use of technically copyrighted material, but where the holder can no longer be found. These are called "orphan" works and Google wants to sell access to them, even though they don't have any rights, just because they took the time to digitize them. The also want an exclusive right to offer this service. This is an entirely new concept, privatizing something in the public domain.
I want to discuss a different aspect of the "ownership" issue. That is where the object itself is unique, such as a painting or sculpture. Ordinarily once such an item is sold the artist loses all rights to it. Some have made agreements concerning subsequent display of the item for commercial purposes (such as in a book). In other words they want to control the "content", but not the item itself.
A more interesting issue is what happens to the work when the original buyer choses to resell it? Typically, for a well-known artist, the price obtained may be much higher than the original buyer paid. The gain in value goes to the owner, not to the artist.
I'd like to propose a formal change to this concept of "ownership". In any future sales the artist gets a certain percentage of the gains realized. Why shouldn't the creator benefit from his work the same as an author? If a book suddenly becomes popular after it is published, the author benefits from the royalties from the additional sale.
I would extend this right to share in the gain indefinitely into the future, even after the original artist is dead. Collectors buy antiquities that are the cultural heritage of the society they come from, but the society doesn't benefit. Many times these are sold illegally so only the thieves make any money from the transaction. Several countries are now demanding that museums return items obtained under such questionable circumstances, especially those obtained during the heyday of colonialism.
In my scheme, when there is no direct line to the original artist, the royalty from the resale would go to a fund that is used to promote the arts and/or conserve other historical artifacts.
The system wouldn't be perfect, but music rights are collected by groups such as ASCAP and BMI and doled out according to a sampling scheme. Small private sales wouldn't be tracked, but the bigger sales go through auction houses or other public sales and keeping track wold be simple. Such places already keep databases of who owned various items and how much they have sold for over the years. Thus, those items which bring in the most money would be included in the plan. If a private seller avoided the scheme and then the person he sold it to later wanted to sell it at an auction, the lack of proof that the royalty had been paid could be used to collect the prior missed amount.
Artists should profit from their work, whenever anyone else does, it seems only fair. If they hadn't created it to start with there would be nothing to sell.