The Authors Guild, via Scott Turow, Paul Aiken and James Shapiro, published an Op-Ed in the New York Times today wondering if Shakespeare would have been able to succeed as a playwright and author without the ability to earn money from his works: Would the Bard Have Survived the Web? "At day’s end, actors and theater owners smashed open the earthenware moneyboxes and divided the daily take. From those proceeds dramatists were paid to write new plays. For the first time ever, it was possible to earn a living writing for the public. Money changed everything. Almost overnight, a wave of brilliant dramatists emerged, including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare. These talents and many comparable and lesser lights had found the opportunity, the conditions and the money to pursue their craft."
Shakespeare created his works in late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, a century before the Statute of Anne and the first copyright. So copyright wasn't the motivator for Shakespeare to write, but the ability for the author and the performers to make a living from their work.
Julie Hollar, writing for FAIR notes that Shakespeare's work may not have even been possible due to copyright: Would the Bard Have Survived U.S. Copyright Law? "Shakespeare's classics Romeo and Juliet, Othello, As You Like It and Measure for Measure, among others, were based on works of fiction published in the decades before Shakespeare's career. They thus would have been illegal under current U.S. copyright law, which keeps works out of the public domain for 70 years after the death of the author, or a total of 95 years for works for hire. Copyright protection for decades after Shakespeare's death would have had no impact on his ability to produce work and limited impact on his incentive to do so--while the inability to retell contemporary stories would have directly restricted his creativity."
But if Shakespeare published a full century before copyright and yet somehow managed to have sufficient incentive to create, doesn't that mean that copyright is far from the only incentive to create?
In the centuries since the Statute of Anne, copyrights now belong more to entities other than individual authors. Individual copyrights are increasingly packaged as assets to generate profits, often for entities who purchased the copyright from the author. The question isn't not: how to we manage to ensure that copyright owners maximize their profits? Rather, shouldn't the Authors' Guild be asking, how do we create incentives for authors? How do we use copyright to maximize value to our Copyright has managed to do this, but is a consistent movement towards stronger copyrights a movement towards creating a vibrant culture?