Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Shouldn't We All be Paid for Our Work?

OK, enough about the Blog, back to Politics.

If Paul Krugman is the American columnist you should read if you only read one, then Maclean's columnist Paul Wells (and his Inkless Wells blog) is probably the Canadian equivalent. But is that going to stop me from nitpicking at a throwaway comment he made in a recent column? Of course not, if anything, the best need to be held to a higher standard.

The recent column in question included the following line,
I have enough musician friends that I'd really rather see musicians get paid for their work.

First off, there's a word for what happens when people set policy according to who their friends are, and I believe it is 'cronyism'. But I'm guessing that Wells' didn't really mean it the way it came out, so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

More interesting, and the reason I made this post, is the 'Musicians should get paid for their work' argument, which I've heard a number of times. The problem, to me, is that the word 'Work' has two (relevant) meanings.

From my girlfriend's concise (yet massive) Oxford dictionary:

1. activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a result.
2. such activity as a means of earning income

So taken on definition 2, the statement is basically that musicians should earn an income from the activity they take as a means of earning income, the logical fallacy of 'begging the question'.1

Even if the people who say this have definition 1 in mind, their argument derives force from the fact that the reader has definition 2 in their mind. After all, shouldn't we all be paid for our work?

Given that the question we are trying to answer is, should musicians be paid for the music they create?, it would seem to be more (at least equally) intellectually honest to say that you think musicians should be paid for their hobby, but it doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it.

1 Via the Nizkor Project,
Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of "reasoning" typically has the following form.

1. Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or indirectly).
2. Claim C (the conclusion) is true.

In this case, the Premise is that what musicians are doing is work (in the sense of work being something you do and get paid for) and the conclusion which follows is that they should be paid for their work which they are doing to get paid for.

Irony: The Blogger spellchecker suggests Nigger as an alternative to Nizkor.
Go Figure: The Blogger spell-check dictionary recognizes Nigger but not Blog???

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  • Thanks for the nice words.

    Nobody on earth would go through the exercise you just went through unless he's downloaded a few hundred tunes illegally. Yes, music is work: ask a musician. No, it's not a hobby, not for most musicians, who have wives and families to feed just as bricklayers and cabinet ministers do. I haven't found anyone posting clever semantic analyses on their blogs to justify their fun habit of going down to the local bakery and stealing a couple dozen loaves of bread; or anyone who says publicly that it's OK to sneak out of a hotel without paying, because after all, the hotel was there anyway, so how is he stealing anyone's "work"?

    People who refuse to pay for music when the artisans are asking to be paid are vandals who hate music and want artists to be even poorer. As a fun bonus, a lot of these people are the same types who argue that government shouldn't subsidize art because "the market" should determine artists' incomes. Brilliant: take away patronage, then take away the market. Nobody could do that who didn't, at some level, profoundly hate art.

    Cheers pw

    By Blogger Paul, at 9:28 AM  

  • I agree with Paul that downloading copyrighted tunes for free is wrong. But I also agree with Declan's point that the purpose of copyright law is to produce incentives to create (not to prevent musical "wealth" from being distributed broadly).

    I think that some changes in copyright law could be enacted that preserve the incentive, while at the same time enriching the lives of those who are unable or unwilling to pay full price for the music. Suggestions include: music copyrights expire after 10-15 years, music copyrights expire after a certain sales volume, or music copyrights expire once the work becomes hard to purchase at a local store.

    By Blogger dejour, at 10:08 AM  

  • Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we shouldn't compensate musicians, just that I find 'they should be paid for their work' to be a false argument. In general, I agree with what Dejour wrote.

    Re: "I haven't found anyone posting clever semantic analyses on their blogs to justify their fun habit of going down to the local bakery and stealing a couple dozen loaves of bread"

    You need to go back in my archives a week to this post where I did exactly that. OK, not exactly that, what I did was show that this is a false comparison. I even used stealing loaves of bread as my analogy!

    Nobody accuses people who borrow books from a library, or who let other family members read magazines they subscribe to of hating literature, yet in my mind, this is a closer comparison to what 'file-sharing' is than stealing.

    The only real difference is that with digital media the potential for sharing is so great that it (in theory anyway) threatens the livelihood of those in the industry.

    As more and more of our economy goes digital, finding the balance of adequate but not excessive compensation will become more and more important, which is why I think it's worth it to carefully question the arguments people use one way or the other to make sure they are valid, and are truly representative of society's best interests.

    Lastly, speaking for myself, I certainly don't hate music or art, quite the contrary.

    By Blogger Declan, at 12:20 PM  

  • Also, Re: "downloaded a few hundred tunes illegally"

    Did I miss something? - Isn't downloading music from the internet legal in Canada?

    Has there been a new decision since this excellent background piece was written in April?

    If not, (and I can't find one - it doesn't seem like the appeal has been heard yet from what I can tell) what's up with people writing stuff like this ?

    By Blogger Declan, at 2:02 PM  

  • Hey Declan, I'm not sure what the point of your post is. Bear with me here since it's late and I've had a long day at work, but I *think* what you're trying to say is that being paid for work is obvious, so the argument that "Musicians should get paid for their work" is either irrelevant or needs to be more precise (I could be wrong and have it backward. When I initally read your post, I had visions that my boss could use your logic and say she shouldn't have to pay me because I'm just getting paid for work which I am doing just to be paid (all true, except the part about I shouldn't get paid). The Begging the Question fallacy was never my strong point).

    That said, I don't agree with you. I think there is a segment of the population (what dejour referred to as "unwilling" to pay for music) that thinks because music can be easily copied for free they should be allowed to do it for free. If the artists don't get compensated, oh well. I'm sure some of these people also argue that we shouldn't have to pay a levy on blank tapes and CDs either. For these people, there is a question of whether musicians should be compensated for their work. For this reason, I'd argue that Paul Wells' comment was valid.

    While I'm at it, I think equating "should musicians be paid for the music they create" with "should musicians be paid for their hobby" is intellecutally dishonest. A hobby implies something that is someone's interest or passion but it is done in their spare time. Creating music could obviously be a hobby, but for many musicians, it's their primary focus. If someone spends most of their time practicing, writing and playing music, that's not a hobby, that's a job. And besides, even if it is a hobby, why shouldn't a musician be paid? Many hobbies that are entrepeneurial in nature can involve payment - selling crafts made in the garage, selling photographs as postcards or art, the "hobby" farm. Or is music-as-a-hobby different because it's intellectual property and not a tangible good or service?


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:22 PM  

  • Nice try. But even if I were to buy your convoluted argument, it rests on you arbitrarily ignoring the first definition in your girlfriend's dictionary.
    I mean, why not define music as bananas and your harddrive as a tropical island and defend your right to off-shore horticulture?

    By Blogger J. Kelly, at 12:38 AM  

  • Copyright law should be set to maximize overall wealth. If there are no incentives, no music is created, therefore no wealth is created.

    Suppose that I do create a song that is universally liked, and I sell it for $1. Now suppose the utility of this song is $3 for X people, but only 25 cents for Y people.

    Under a no-copying system, the overall wealth is $3X, of which the artist gets $X. However, once the song is created, the overall wealth could be $3X+$.25Y if everyone could copy it for free. The goal should be to devise a system that allows the artist to still get paid $X, while distributing the song broadly to ensure that the overall wealth of $3X+$.25Y is achieved.

    Hence some of my ideas about early expiry of the copyright - nonr of which is ideal.

    By Blogger dejour, at 8:00 AM  

  • Kelly, you misunderstand me, I am not ignoring the first definition, or even saying that the ‘musicians should be paid for their work’ argument is technically invalid (although it has some disturbing consequences if you take it to its logical conclusion). I’m just saying that, per Shaun’s comment, people’s argument needs to be more precise, instead of relying for part of its force on an ambiguity in the meaning of the word ‘work’.

    That is, if you and I are debating something and I use a word which has 2 meanings, one which is just a clear statement of fact and one which pre-judges the argument in my favour, it behooves me to specify which meaning I am referring to. Better yet, I should pick a different word which doesn’t have this ambiguity. That’s really all I was saying in this post.

    As for the bananas, I love a good analogy, but I don’t really get this one. I’ve already referred to my post where I argue that physical objects (like bananas) aren’t a good point of reference for intangibles which you can make digital copies of. Plus, if my hard drive was a tropical island, couldn’t I grow my own bananas? :)

    Maybe you were just suggesting that I was pulling a Humpty-Dumpty and using words to mean what I choose them to mean, but if so, I don’t think that’s fair, since I was only making use of definitions in the Oxford dictionary.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:39 AM  

  • Shaun, the point of my post is that (as you suggest), the argument in favour of paying musicians should be more precise. Right now, it is using ambiguity to its advantage, without admitting this.

    It’s certainly true that there are lots of people out there who believe, out of self-interest, that they shouldn’t have to pay anything for music or art in any way shape or form. Equally, there are lots of (far more powerful and influential) people & corporations out there who believe that every piece of art, music or literature ever produced should be locked up in copyright for eternity.

    It’s a balance. This balance was tipped away from producers and towards consumers by the development of digital copying and tipped further by the internet making it easy to distribute digital copies around the world. Rather than try to restore the balance, people on the producers side have instead mounted a campaign to convince everyone that there is no balance, and that only their interest counts.

    The most common form of this argument is the copying = theft scheme which if carried to its logical conclusion would lead to perpetual copyright (and no personal/fair use provisions). The ‘musicians should be paid for their work’ argument, offered without any further context, is another form of this, since the argument: ‘you should pay any time you obtain something which somebody worked on to make’ is not one which ever expires.

    You object to my use of the word hobby because it implies that what is being referred to is something which is done only in one’s spare time. Fair enough, I was objecting to the use of the word work because it implied that what was being referred to was something which is done in return for money.

    Based on the Oxford, the ‘work means getting paid’ implication is definition #2. But for hobby there is nothing on ‘hobby implies something done in spare time’ (I believe it says something like: An activity done regularly for fun). So we have the same case, but (based on Oxford) mine is stronger (but yours is still valid – that’s my point, even if the words we use are technically correct, we shouldn’t use them if they imply something misleading or inaccurate).

    I disagree with your assessment that if someone spends most of their time at something then it’s a job. I could quit my job and spend all my time working on my Blog but it would still be a hobby and not a job and it wouldn’t change my case for getting paid or the proper copyright status of my work.

    As for why musicians shouldn’t be paid even if it is just a hobby, I never said this. I’m just saying that they shouldn’t be paid because it’s a hobby. The reason to pay musicians is not because it’s work or because it’s a hobby, it’s because it’s in societies best interest to do so. It may seem like a semantic point but it makes a huge difference when it comes to crafting legislation.

    And for the record, I have nothing against musicians, any more than those who argue against me have something against music lovers, especially poor ones.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:50 AM  

  • Dejour: I pretty much agree with what you're saying.

    In a monopoly situation (like when someone has a copyright) the producer (musician/record company) will set prices to extract as much of the difference between cost to produce and value to customer as possible. As in your example, price discrimination (charging more to people willing to pay more) can help them to do that, although in your example, they would set a price of $3 for the people willing to pay $3, and then try to find a way to charge 25c to the people only willing to pay that.

    In a competitive market, competition drives the price down so that the consumer captures more of the value. File sharing over the internet is an extreme case of this where, if everyone did it all the time for every purchase, the price of music would be driven down to 0 (because the marginal cost is 0).

    Neither of these extremes is optimal (in my view). So by having a copyright which expires after a certain number of years, we start with the initial high monopoly pricing (paid by the impatient people willing to pay more) and then move to the 0 (marginal cost) post-copyright pricing afterwards, splitting the difference between the two extremes and achieving an efficiency gaining price discrimination at the same time.

    Kind of like releasing the music first in hardcover and then in paperback (and also at the library).

    So maybe, I'm just taking a lot of words to say what you did in just a few, but I'm a little slow, so I had to think(write) it through for myself.

    In fact, the microeconomic perspective on this issue is probably worth a post of its own, but it will likely be a week or two before I get to it. There's a couple of other posts I was already working on, plus there's that whole Christmas thing I keep hearing about (must stop Blogging and go buy presents for family)...

    By Blogger Declan, at 6:38 PM  

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