To Taylor Swift, Love Freedom

Originally posted to

imageDear Taylor,

You recently wrote an open letter to Apple, Inc. (To Apple, Love Taylor) where you spelled out your decisions on why you will not be allowing them to stream your album, 1989, without paying you for the privilege. Your letter was clear and eloquent, and provides a strong emotional case for why you feel Apple needs to pay artists during the three-month trial period for their new streaming service.

As I understand your letter, your grievance with Apple can be summed up with your statement that “it is unfair to ask anyone to work for no compensation.” In a biting kicker, you conclude, “We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

If Apple is truly asking you (and other artists) to provide them with labour or products with absolutely no compensation, then I agree that would be an unfair deal. In order to acquire your property, it’s only fair that the richest corpor
ation in the world offers some of theirs. But what if Apple has already compensated you for your work (or more accurately, your property), and you are now double-dipping—asking for even more compensation? Wouldn’t that be unfair?

The problem here is that we may have different conceptions of what it means to acquire your work. My view is that property can be bought and sold freely among consenting adults. And once someone justly acquires property, they can do with it as they wish. They can use it until it’s broken, or keep it in its original packaging while it collects dust in an attic.

But your position seems to be rooted in the tradition of so-called intellectual property, such that your ideas (songs, lyrics, etc.) can be purchased from you and only you (or your agents), and no one is allowed to resell or recycle or remix any of your ideas—even after a purchase!—without your express permission, or paying you a toll.

But Taylor, isn’t this position that people pay you every time they want to use your idea, or share it with someone else, after already paying you once… a little weird? What if this sort of reasoning applied to other kinds of property? Then you would have to cut a check to your manicurist every time someone saw your nails in one of your videos. With over 5 billion views on YouTube, that’d be a lot of cheques to write. Then you’d get carpal tunnel syndrome, and you wouldn’t be able to write any more smash hits. Wouldn’t that be awful? Isn’t it great that there’s no intellectual property protection for manicured nails?

That’s another weird thing about intellectual property protection: just how arbitrary it is! Why is music subject to protection, but manicured nails aren’t? Also, why are different kinds of intellectual property protected for different lengths of time—for example, a song is usually protected for the life of the artist plus 70 years, but a new drug only gets protection for about 20 years. If IP is to ensure creators get money, do Justin Bieber and his descendants deserve more money than the inventor of a cure for congenital heart disease?

Clearly, intellectual property rights are not like normal property rights. The difference is this: with normal property, I can do whatever I like with my property as long as it isn’t damaging your property. But with “intellectual” property, you can control how I use my normal property despite the fact that you still “own” your “intellectual” property, and that I am not damaging any of your normal property!

It’s true that coming up with an idea is hard work, and that it’s possible to keep an idea secret from others. But unlike normal property, once you share an idea with another person, although you no longer have exclusive control of it, you still can use the idea!

If I hear you say the words “this sick beat”, I should have the right to buy my own shirt and silk-screening equipment, and create a shirt that says “this sick beat”. My creation, possession, or conception of the shirt does not stop you from creating, possessing, or conceptualizing your own shirt. But the arbitrary rules of IP let you dictate to me what I can do with my own property. And that’s not fair.

Now you might be thinking, if artists don’t have intellectual property rights, how will they ever get paid? This is a common question. But economists Boldrin and Levine answer this in their appropriately named book, Against Intellectual Monopoly. In Chapter 5, they document how after the introduction of IP for music in Britain in the 18th century, the number of working musicians in the most advanced country in the world drastically fell, especially relative to other countries in Europe which did not offer musicians IP protection.

Presumably, people didn’t stop becoming musicians because they were making too much money. Most likely, IP made it harder to make money as a musician. This makes sense: if a budding musician can be sued for knocking off a more successful artist, whether the allegations are true or not, that makes the choice to become a musician much more costly.

So if intellectual property is a problem, what is the solution? For those of us (like yours truly and Boldrin and Levine) who think IP is an institutional evil, that limits free speech and accessibility to cheap drugs, the answer is simple: abolish all intellectual property protections.

For more practically minded artists, there is an easy alternative: release your work on a Creative Commons license. This will allow any use, commercial or non-commercial, of your work by others, so long as they give appropriate attribution. You can still make money by selling seats to your concerts, or autographed copies of your posters, or charging a fee to write new music for benefactors, or releasing your work directly to your fans (like comedian Louis CK), or raise the money for your album on a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter.

The possibilities are limited only by your imagination—and existing laws of letting other people control their own property.

Yours truly,

Ash Navabi