Yesterday has a premise of the kind that Hollywood financiers love – immediately engaging and suggests scenes and plot devices by its mere description: Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer/songwriter from Suffolk, England, touring tired pubs and hotels, performing to a handful of beer drinkers each time. He’s faithfully supported by childhood friend and school teacher Ellie (Lily James), driving him around to these hopeless gigs. One day, a worldwide blackout coincides with Jack getting hit by a bus.
After waking from a coma and welcomed back to consciousness by his buddies, he soon discovers that they have never heard of The Beatles. In fact, nobody has, not even Google. It appears that some kind of shift in the universe has occurred, and The Beatles and all their material have disappeared from collective memory, except for that of this young musician. He then, you guessed it, decides to take the song we all know out on his tours, pretending that he has written them, propelling him into superstardom.
It does all the high concept suggests, and is efficient at it. Director Danny Boyle gives Richard Curtis’ witty script some finesse and momentum that at times recalls the excitement one felt at the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire. The central relationship between Patel and James on which the personal stakes rest is weak, however, and fails to reach a totally satisfying catharsis like that 2008 film. Those intrigued by the premise will surely enjoy it. Those who are interested in the ethics and economics of intellectual property will find a helpful cinematic case study, so to speak.
The following will contain plot spoilers.
The conceit sets up a plethora of dilemmas – for most people, in a world where everyone knows who the Beatles are, plagiarising their material is clearly wrong. Passing off someone else’s work as your own is condemned in most cultures. You’re appropriating the adulation from the original creator.
Yet what about this universe where there is no original creator to be celebrated? Within the confines of this situation, the world is ignorant of the true origin of this material, so the discussion doesn’t even come up. Logic brings us naturally to the first conclusion: ascribing responsibility for a product requires widespread knowledge. The ignorance of the people makes a mockery of the metaphysical “injustice” going on here.
We discover as the film goes on that Jack is in fact not the only one who remembers the songs, he’s merely the only one with the musical talent to reproduce them. Jack is initially terrified at what the two other people in the world with that knowledge will say to him, but it turns out fine. They’re actually delighted that there is someone who’s able to bring the joy of that music to the world.
They’re taking the right attitude. One can easily imagine those in the know leading a crusade against the injustice of it all, that this man with a quantum of the talent of the Fab Four might take credit for the songs. Yet what is his crime exactly? A crime requires a victim, and since the victims don’t exist in this world, there can be no crime.
The issue would, of course, arise that he will run out of Beatles songs to cover, and be found out that he has only a mediocre songwriting talent – his attempt to smuggle one of his own originals goes afoul as it’s roundly rejected by the label. Then he will be passed off as a has-been (This fantastical premise might actually explain why certain musicians’ talent seems to fall off a cliff after a certain point). So some “justice” is done there.
However, this high-concept premise reveals that the true “value” being provided by the music business is not the musical ideas themselves, but the ability to deliver those ideas through the form of digitized songs and albums. The idea itself isn’t the commodity, the value is in bringing those ideas to the market to be consumed. A work of musical genius in someone’s head has no value whatsoever beyond the subjective utility of its inventor, or “discoverer” (Paul McCartney claims that most of his ideas seem to “come” to him, and he’s merely the conduit). It is only when it’s been written down, recorded and distributed that it becomes valuable to other people.
This brings to mind the satirical song Tribute by Tenacious D, which tells the story of the greatest song ever written, unknown to the world because it was never written down or recorded. We’re just supposed to take their word for it that it was great. The point being, as far as economics is concerned, it makes no difference to us whether we know of that idea existing somewhere. So long as it is not a product that can deliver something that we can actually experience it may as well not exist at all.
In this case then, obviously, Malik should be celebrated for doing the work to bring those ideas into a form that the world can appreciate. I’ll even give you the argument that he really shouldn’t be taking the credit for The Beatles’ ideas. But which situation is worse, a world where The Beatles have never existed, and the songs never exist, or a world where the songs can be appreciated by everybody, yet someone else is taking the credit? Surely it’s better for the world that The Beatles are part of it.
Plagiarism is only a small part of the whole issue surrounding intellectual property, however. Those who run afoul of the IP enforcement system are almost never actually attempting to pass off other people’s work as their own. They are merely copying and profiting by somebody else’s work. This is an entirely different issue.
At the end of the film, Malik realizes he’s not ready to take the responsibility of his newfound fame and adulation, especially harboring a feeling that he doesn’t deserve it all, and admits the truth to the world at a final performance at Wembley Stadium. Okay great, so that’s solved the problem of plagiarism.
Yet in another supposedly noble gesture, he gets his roadie to upload all of the songs to a file-sharing website so that they’re available for free to everybody. Erm, what was the point of that? Obviously, all of them are on file-sharing websites anyway. IP enforcement has never actually succeeded in preventing music from being shared. It merely makes an example of certain people with disproportionate force.
The idea that IP law helps mitigate the free-rider problem is nonsense. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. It, in fact, exposes the essential nonsense of IP law, per se. Jack’s manager goes into a raging fit because Malik “gave away” all the music, but she needn’t – presumably, the label still holds copyright claim over the songs, and will still have the power of the state at her back to go after file sharers if she wanted to. She should be happy – the only other person who could reasonably claim royalties on the music is Jack, and he has relinquished that right.
A better option for Jack would have been to ignore the label system completely, go at it as his own, and retain full copyright ownership. He would not, however, pursue file-sharers. He would understand that they’re performing a valuable service to society by making the music more accessible. He’d keep the copyright claim only to stop others from claiming and attempting to monopolize it.
Recall that the point of a system of property rights is to reduce conflict over scarce resources. Without a common understanding of who owns what, how one comes to own something, or indeed what can be owned, the divvying of resources becomes a free-for-all where there can be no basis for domestication let alone civilization. This common understanding has to make sense and go some way to achieving the reduction of conflict.
Intellectual property fails on both counts. It doesn’t make sense as ideas cannot be owned like any other good. Ownership requires sole right of alienation, which is impossible if two or more people can hold the same idea simultaneously. It fails to reduce conflict, and actually increases conflict over scarce resources. As ideas are not scarce, any attempt to act as if they are scarce creates conflict over other goods.
Take the case of the songs that were shared online in Yesterday. They can not be said to be scarce since it only took the simple act of copying the files and uploading them (that had almost certainly already been done by others) to create more. The idea itself had no inherent constraints, and all of a sudden, multiple people had access to the same ideas simultaneously. There was no stealing going on here: the original creator and owner of the files were not deprived of them.
If the copyright owner tried to go after the file sharers using the force of law, they would be in fact creating more conflict rather than reducing it. It would be an attempt to prevent other people from using their property as they see fit. They would, moreover, be violating the moral center of the film.
The world seems to be built that any anyone attempting to thwart the spread of goodness and beauty comes to create more bad ends – it’s clear that the world is better off by the proliferation of The Beatles’ music. This goes beyond the mere theoretical – there was a time when the songs were not available on streaming platforms, and some of the best music ever created was segregated from the others as if it was too sacred for common ears. Thankfully, whoever pulled the strings came to their senses and released them, allowing millions more fans to be created, a million more souls to be touched by their transcendent melodies.
If your view of property rights requires you to believe that people don’t deserve to hear that love is all you need, then perhaps you need to rethink it.