The value of classic literature

I enjoyed Kent Beck’s recent article Pay Me for Before, or Pay Me for Later, in which he considers ways of generating income as a software development guru. The technical books he writes are widely pirated. He writes:

Catcher [in the Rye] was Salinger’s only novel, published in 1951. It’s sold 65 million copies since then. So basically Salinger has spent 50+ years cashing royalty checks and contributing back very little (at least on the scale of another widely-studied novel). That makes no sense from a resource allocation perspective. Catcher was a significant societal contribution, but society has had little payback from its subsequent investment (must be tens of millions of dollars) in Mr. Salinger.

Getting paid for what I’ve already done doesn’t make sense (from the Catcher in the Rye example). So, here’s my proposed deal. Y’all can have everything I’ve already done for free-as-in-beer if I get a steady income for the work I’m about to do.

Beck paints Salinger as the example of what not to do, squandering the “investment” that society made in him. On the contrary! Salinger created a durable product—a novel that people continue to find valuable generations later. That’s spectacularly productive labor: Salinger spends a few years writing his novel, and for the next 50 years millions of readers get value from his work. Classic art and literature is a very efficient and productive for society, even if the creator captures some value through royalties.

Paying for a product or service is not per se an “investment” in the creator. Buying a house is not an investment in the agent, seller, or constructor to keep doing what they’re doing. Paying a parking ticket isn’t an investment in the city to keep doling out parking tickets. Purchases are simply a choice between having more cash and no product, or having less cash and some product.

Purchases incentivize future production, but it’s a mistake to conflate the reasons for the purchase with the incentives it creates.

I don’t think Beck is really conflating purchases and the incentives they create. He likely was simplifying matters for the sake of brevity. Beck’s sense of fairness would prefer getting paid for current work rather than previous work. While that’s probably a popular opinion, I don’t think it’s a rational one.

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