Or, as Tim Parks asks in the New York Review of Books, does copyright matter? A good overview of the history of copyright, and some of its implications. Of particular interest is speculation on what would happen if copyright didn't exist.
One sees here the difference from the music industry: unable to police their copyright on CDs, musicians nevertheless go on writing songs and can enjoy the feedback and hopefully some income from performing them to an appreciative public; if the songs happen to catch on through the internet then the musicians can enjoy notoriety and expect bigger concerts, if not a huge income from selling albums. But there is no such performative context for the prose thriller, or even the great American novel. Without the prospect of money, the author would have to think very hard what it is he really wants to write and how he plans to engage with an eventual community of readers whose appreciation, if not cash, must suffice to give him the gratification and encouragement he seeks. In short, you wouldn’t launch blindly into a major novel, as so many young writers do, simply because novels are the form that command attention and promise an income.
There is no real performative context for television and movies, either. Leave aside the heated and emotional debate about piracy and how we should value the arts. Parks concludes that copyright exists because we enjoy long-form fiction, and so copyright continues to be pushed down the road to shelter that art form.
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. If people only read poetry, which you can never stop poets producing even when you pay them nothing at all, then the law of copyright would disappear in a trice.
So by continuing to buy novels, we continue to extend the life of copyright. How does that loop work, exactly?
Does the same mechanism fuel the continued existence of the broken patent system in technology? Are we, as consumers of lots of patented technologies, complicit? Is our spending funding, indirectly, a powerful lobby? That may be an unintended side effect of our economic and political systems, that the collective well being of society as a whole is undermined by the concentrated will of special interests who, perversely, are funded by the purchase choices of the same people who will be hurt the most. Patent law could just be a glitch in the tech industry's economic matrix.