The debates over copyright that I see usually have two opposing camps. One says that artists have a right to earn income from their work and prevent others from profiting off it without permission; furthermore it would be unfair, for instance, to cut off the royalty flow to an author now in retirement from works published earlier in life, so copyright should at least last as long as the author's life.
The other camp takes the more economic-modelling-y approach and considers all the consumer surplus that would come from freeing up the copyright laws. The moral basis for copyright, in this framework, is to encourage the production of new artistic (or non-fiction or whatever) work, and for this purpose only a moderate copyright period is necessary; the Productivity Commission recently wistfully wished for 15 to 25 years.
I find that I very easily slip into arguing* from the second moral framework when responding to moral claims from the first framework. Recently, I saw someone on Twitter being scathingly dismissive about a 20-year copyright term – that published author considered it absurd that the Rolling Stones would no longer be entitled to revenues from their albums, or that JK Rowling would soon stop being paid for the first Harry Potter novel.
*In my head. I don't actually want to argue with authors about copyright on Twitter.
"You think that's absurd?" I mentally tweeted back. "As if JK Rowling needs a second billion dollars for Harry Potter to have been worth the effort of writing it, or to encourage other authors to write! As if becoming fabulously wealthy rock legends isn't enough of a dream for young people to make music!" (Imaginary tweets not only make Twitter a happier place, but they don't even have to be constrained by the character limit.)
But my counter-argument, which feels incredibly strong to me even as I've tried to present it as missing the point, does indeed miss the point. To some people, and many apparently artists feel this acutely, people are entitled to revenue from the art that they create when other people consume it.*
*This statement can probably be tightened up a little, but you get the idea.
There's no way to fundamentally reconcile the two competing frameworks – society simply has to decide on a balance between giving artists a revenue stream based on their work being consumed, and letting utility flow from consumer surpluses after copyright expires. Legislatively, the balance of this debate is being won handsomely by the corporations that own the copyright from long-dead authors, and I would happily accept an expiry of copyright at the author's death, instead of author's death plus 70 years. (Even as I'm inclined to think, without being sure by any stretch, that total abolition of copyright would be an improvement on the status quo.) At least we don't have eternal copyright, as argued (morally) in this NYT op-ed. I just want to read Australian newspapers in 1955 without using a microfilm reader, is that too much to ask?
I mentioned this post being partly Hamilton-inspired. I've never followed musicals closely, and I don't have any memories of musical productions at high school level (is that an American thing? Or just not a the-school-I-went-to thing?), so the world is all quite new to me. The biggest musicals earn more money than the biggest films – they run for years, gradually building a total audience in the millions or even tens of millions while selling tickets at somewhere around $100 each. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a billionaire.
Lin-Manuel Miranda says that he and others spent seven years working to make Hamilton a great piece of musical live theatre, and this seems a reasonable enough argument not to get too annoyed at the decades-long wait for a possible film. But it's an argument that also dovetails perfectly with what's most financially lucrative for Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Of course I would hardly claim that Miranda is morally obliged to sell the movie rights and start filming already. What I was more surprised by is that musical writers and playwrights have such control over their work that even high school productions have to pay a royalty fee, even if the performance is free, and even then only once the author permits it. That is not currently the case for Hamilton (it will likely be licensed for schools in a few years); there's a heavily abridged (~25min) high-school performance of it on YouTube, and there are a couple of commenters saying that they couldn't possibly have the rights to sing and dance in character to half a dozen Hamilton songs in front of an audience.
My instincts here are extremely opposed to copyright protection in cases where no money is made from the performance(s). At least one of my instincts finds it absurd that it'd be illegal to charge $5 a ticket, but I can see that it would be immoral to have a professional production and charge $100 without any of that going to the creators (and original investors?), so I don't see a way to draw the line at anywhere other than zero.
(Another consideration is that most musicals lose money (and I'm guessing most plays as well, but their royalty fees are much lower than musicals'), even some that win lots of awards. Are any of these losses cushioned a little by a slow trickle of amateur and small-theatre productions?)
Something feels qualitatively different to me in the control over theatre performances, but I don't know if it's a morally relevant distinction. In the case of a copyright-breaking book, it's the exact text that is copied; for a film, it's reproducing the precise video and audio. For plays or musicals, I can see the natural parallel that it would be illegal to publish a bootleg recording of a performance – that's the performance that ordinarily you'd have to buy a ticket to see. But preventing other people from performing the show feels like an extra level of protection. Is it really? I'm not sure. You can think of it as protecting the "musical entity" from something akin to unauthorised broadcast.
Anyway I have no conclusion.