Any story that opens up with “So I was goofing off….” will either be interesting or really pointless. This one is somewhere in between, and argues that well known point that since Shakespeare borrowed liberally from existing known works, that under current copyright law he would have been sued out of existence.
First and foremost it’s worth noting that this argument is about as valuable as saying that he’s a bad speller according to today’s dictionary. He had no spelling rules to work with, so you can’t go applying rules that didn’t exist for him.
With that in mind, it presumes a world in which, even with all this copyright law, Shakespeare still would have gone ahead and stolen the works, which is ridiculous.
There is one sentence that addresses the point:
If Shakespeare had plenty of money, he could have contacted all the copyright owners and paid them whatever they asked, but if he didn't have enough money, the result would have been he would have been unable to afford to write King Lear.
which goes back to my first argument – you’re setting up a completely hypothetical situation.
Everything I’ve read tells us that Shakespeare was indeed a very shrewd (some would say penny-pinching) businessman who knew the rules of his own game well enough to garner multiple revenue streams through his writing as well as his ownership stake.
Let’s think about *that* Shakespeare in this modern world. First of all he’d get a piece of the action everytime somebody wanted to print his work, so right there’s a nice piece of change to work with. When somebody like Thorpe comes along and tries to publish the Sonnets without permission? Then he’s the one getting smacked down, and Shakespeare reaps the profits. We’re not even getting into extended media rights for movies, cable tv and so on. I think that the best assumption is Shakespeare would have been a very rich man indeed.
Having said that, I feel pretty confident in saying that he’d be the type to not only get all his paperwork in order and purchase the existing rights, but to invent new forms of contract that would allow him maximum return on his investment.