MacCaulay on Copyright

The advantages arising from a system of copyright are obvious. It is desirable that we should have a supply of good books: we cannot have such a supply unless men of letters are liberally remunerated […] And there are only two ways in which they can be remunerated. One of those ways is patronage; the other is copyright. […]
The principle of copyright is this. It is a tax on readers for the purpose of giving a bounty to writers. The tax is an exceedingly bad one; it is a tax on one of the most innocent and most salutary of human pleasures; and never let us forget, that a tax on innocent pleasures is a premium on vicious pleasures. I admit, however, the necessity of giving a bounty to genius and learning. In order to give such a bounty, I willingly submit even to this severe and burdensome tax. Nay, I am ready to increase the tax, if it can be shown that by so doing I should proportionally increase the bounty. My complaint is, that my honorable and learned friend doubles, triples, quadruples, the tax, and makes scarcely and perceptible addition to the bounty. (Thomas Babbington MacCaulay)


9 thoughts on “MacCaulay on Copyright

  1. “never let us forget, that a tax on innocent pleasures is a premium on vicious pleasures” – that’s really clever!
    I remember once asking my Dominican friend if it was immoral to download PDFs of copyright books online. He said there wasn’t enough evidence in tradition for copyright to say that it was. What do you think? To me it does seem like it can still be wrong insofar as it involves an inordinate love of money.


    • It’s a tough question, and there are lots of distinctions that could be made. In general I think that one should obey copyright laws, although I also think that there are exceptions. In any case breaking them is not theft but it might a sort of tax evasion (to follow through with MacCaulay’s account).


  2. Respectfully, I don’t think it’s a tough question at all. Even if we accept that copyright laws are a flawed means of supporting artists and writers, do you think they are actually unjust? And if copyright laws are not unjust, by what authority do you break them?


    • In general I do not think that they are so unjust as to justify disobeying them. But I also do not think that we are always bound to obey the letter of the law. Thus, for example, I have not scruples about jaywalking when a road is free of traffic. Here are three cases where I have downloaded pdfs from the internet in violation of copyright:

      1) When the author of a chapter in an edited volume posts a pdf of his chapter on his own website or on This is very often done, but is usually in violation of copyright.

      2) When I am writing about a book of which I already have a hard copy, I often download a pdf from the web in order to have a searchable version. This is a clear violation of the letter of the law, but not, I think of the spirit, since I have already bought the work.

      3) I have no scruple whatever in downloading pdfs of liturgical books, since I think it is obscene that the texts of the sacred liturgy are put under copyright in the first place.


  3. It’s not a tax. Copyright is nothing more than a means of protecting distribution of knowledge that is for sell.

    There are different means of distribution, for instance mine, as architect, is in a similar format to that of book authors because the knowledge people purchase from me is written on paper and is likewise copyright protected.

    Doctors likewise, as with all consultants, sell knowledge. That selling of knowledge is not a tax, or a bounty in common parlance.


  4. I agree with Franklin that it is not properly a tax. A tax is a payment to the government, and the remuneration here is a payment to an individual (or, at least, a company, but a private party).

    In principle, knowledge is one of the “common goods”, and restricting access to a common good is usually contrary to the public welfare – all other things being equal, that is. There are, however, plenty of exceptions and nuances to this: private information about another’s sins (that do not affect others) is not information that should be spread; state secrets for national security should be restricted, and so on.

    In the case of inventions, the state has decided to temporarily restrict the universal access to the free use of the knowledge in the form of a temporary monopoly on the use of the knowledge. This monopoly creates for the inventor a private interest that can be converted into monetary gain: he can license the use to others, or charge more for a product that uses his information than could otherwise be charged, because of it’s scarcity. He is thus less likely to either hide the invention from others, or disguise or encrypt it so that its core truth cannot be copied. Thus the temporary monopoly exists on account of a governmental prudential judgment that the public welfare is better served by granting a temporary private benefit in something that – of its own nature – is a “common good”, than by what would otherwise be an “unrestricted” access that ends up not being access at all.

    A copyright stands in much the same position as a patent, for these purposes. However, there are some few differences as well, which is why the copyright lasts so much longer than a patent. I would hesitate to distinguish all those differences, but I don’t think the core principle changes: the granting of a temporary monopoly for private gain from what is (otherwise) a common good is judged to be for the benefit of society.

    I would mention that there are anti-intellectual-property purists who claim they can produce scientific evidence that the ACTUAL benefits are outweighed by the offsetting detriments to such a system. I suspect that any such conclusions could ONLY be highly particular to a given culture and legal apparatus (and thus not generalizable), and in any event endlessly debatable – in which case it remains a proper venue for the prudential judgment of the legislator.

    3) I have no scruple whatever in downloading pdfs of liturgical books, since I think it is obscene that the texts of the sacred liturgy are put under copyright in the first place.

    I too think that it is obscene that the Church (or conferences of bishops) allow copyrights to these (in such manner as to make downloads “illegal”), and to hymnals that are largely collections of church music. It isn’t merely a matter of prudence, here, the very notion is unconscionable and offensive to pious ears. I also find it grotesque that Church practice also gives aid and comfort to those who collect music into hymnals, who blythely change a few of the words in a traditional hymn so as to make the end product “different” and thus copyrightable as a different product. Such practices ought to be explicitly proscribed with respect to church use, and any publishers who are found to do so in “private” uses ought to be boycottted by the churches altogether. Changing traditional songs for mere profit is an offense against culture, against Tradition, etc.

    Hi Franklin – long time, no see.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tony M. writes : “In principle, knowledge is one of the “common goods””

    This is true, and yet not in the least true because while the knowledge may be common, the infrastructure, so to speak, that produced that knowledge is not in the least a common good.

    The problem is that people look at the final product and not at the means of production that produced the product. What copyright finally is protecting is the production of the product by means of preventing the use of the knowledge produced. Copy protection protects labor and other costs incurred.

    When people write, ‘patronage’ or ‘tax’, or ‘bounty’ or give those exceedingly stupid arguments that knowledge is a common good and thus should be free for the taking, or what have you, they are blindly missing what is being sold as if cigarettes come from cigarette trees free for the taking. Or as if knowledge falls from the sky the same as rain.

    Tony M’s final comment on hymnals touches on this point because his argument is grounded on lack of labor should mean lack of ownership.


  6. the infrastructure, so to speak, that produced that knowledge is not in the least a common good….
    Copy protection protects labor and other costs incurred.

    I would say yes and no. If a man (or a company) spends 10,000 hours to develop a drug, and 3 months before they are ready to initiate the patent process someone else patents the same drug, their labor and other costs are not protected. Or, if they fail, if the drug they are trying to develop doesn’t work, and can’t be patented at all, their labor is not protected. If a company is successful in developing a ‘new’ technique, but it is ruled not sufficiently distinct enough to warrant a patent, their labor is not protected. Generally, most new-ish ideas are not patentable, but enormous resources go into them before that, labor that is not protected. These new ideas can still be used by the person who came up with them, but not in a protected way.

    Blogging illustrates a vast complex of people willing to put forth their time and energy saying something that they think is worthwhile. Sometimes is IS worthwhile. And yet these people do it without being paid for it. Their labor is not remunerated at all, even if it is immensely valuable. (We can wish, right?) The labor is expended without any financial benefit expected. If the blogger’s comments generate new knowledge, the labor is a private cost (effort) that produces a common good.

    Another example is some kinds of open-source software and apps. Many people just plain LIKE to produce neat, useful little programs that they can share with others. They are sometimes willing to spend hundreds or even thousands of hours on it, for no pay. These products often do valuable “work”, including in the marketplace. They could have been marketed for return on their labor, but they weren’t. Indeed, some inventors also make their patents “open” to all, so that they can be used without cost. Elon Musk has done this. So sometimes knowledge DOES fall from the world like rain.

    Since copyrights and patents don’t protect (cover) the financial cost of ALL of the labor that is expended to produce new ideas, but only a subset, the notion that the fundamental purpose is to make sure labor expended to produce is paid back can’t explain all of it – which means that it suspect as “the” fundamental purpose. If one man invents a new product concept at the expense of great time and effort, and someone smarter could have done so off the cuff and with virtually no appreciable effort, there is no rational basis for assuming that the private inurement should pay the inventor for ALL of his cost and time and effort, just as there is no assumption that society will pay others for their failed efforts to produce the same thing.

    Furthermore, in some fields society has NOT found it suitable to protect the use of an idea from others gain. For example, if a mathematician publishes a proof for a new theorem, he is unable to prevent other mathematicians from using ‘his’ theorem as a building block for their (separate) new theorems – he cannot charge them a price for doing so. So, even though he expended great effort, we do not admit his labor is to be “protected” in the sense of providing private gain therefrom. This also goes for many scientific discoveries, from things as simple as identifying a new asteroid or comet to new basic physics concepts.

    When people write, ‘patronage’ or ‘tax’, or ‘bounty’ or give those exceedingly stupid arguments that knowledge is a common good and thus should be free for the taking,

    The difficulty in principle is whether a person – even one who has expended much labor on it – has a right to block others from access to the idea, for it is the blocking that creates an artificial scarcity that causes the possibility of private gain. For private goods, I think the presumption is that he does have a right to retain exclusive control of it if it properly speaking “belongs” to him, and one of the ways of causing it to belong to him is for him to make it. For common goods, it is less clear that ANYONE has the right to make it public AND declare exclusive control over it, even if they did “invent” it in some sense (in another sense, God is the source of all knowledge, so nobody “invents” all by themselves). For one thing, no person can simultaneously publicize his idea, AND actually exercise physical control over it himself – he must rely on society to police others’ use of his idea. (Is he entitled to society expending that effort?) The general sense has been that he needs more argument than “I invented it” to justify that exclusivity. And if there is some natural right to exercise exclusive control of the idea, could there be any natural time limit on that right, or is it naturally perpetual? Arguably, the right to use the new knowledge (without excluding others) is what is logically implied by inventing some new idea. Something argument beyond that is needed to also grant or explain the right to exclude others from using the idea once made public. Since the common good pertains more to the whole of society than to just one man, the notion has been that society has a right to offer to exclude others (by granting a monopoly) because such will encourage wider dissemination of knowledge and the greater public welfare: a pragmatic reason for society to effectively voluntarily offer to forego common usage, creating scarcity and thus effectively private gain for something that is not itself a private good. Society’s choice to forego treating the new idea as fully held in common (for a time) does not alter the principle that it is a common good.

    Liked by 1 person

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