On copyright being useless because it's recent

I just attended the 2013 Economics and Commons Conference in Berlin. During the Knowledge stream of that event something came up that has bothered me for a long time: the assertion that copyright is useless also because it’s just a few centuries old, and artists were doing just fine even before, thank you very much. Here is what I would have repeated, if there had been more time during those sessions.

I find this particular argument against copyright very, very weak, to say the least, and I’d really like to see it go, for at least three reasons:

  • in and by itself, the age of a concept doesn’t say anything at all about its validity. Why don’t we abolish the right of women to vote? After all, it is much younger than copyright and humankind went along for centuries without it, didn’t they now?
  • Inspiration to produce art also comes from external stimuli. Including the many dreadful works produced specifically to make some easy bucks through copyright. Why deprive real artists of the inspiration that vile mercenaries may provide them? Flowers grow much better, much more frequently on manure than on barren rock
  • (above all!) Right or wrong, copyright is an institution that covers much, much more than just art, whatever your definition of art is. Copyright also touches bus timetables, software manuals, technical specs and myriads of other vital, but immensely bothering things that have nothing to do with art. Therefore, abolition of copyright because “artists don’t need it and never did” would be pretty stupid, even if it were true

I’m the first to say that the current “use” of copyright royally sucks and is bad for society (I even have a “copyright madness” series that always welcomes suggestions): but let’s fight it more smartly please.