The copyright wars

Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.  Mark Twain 

Society confronts the simple fact that when everyone can possess every intellectual work of beauty and utility–reaping all the human value of every increase of knowledge–at the same cost that any one person can possess them, it is no longer moral to exclude. If Rome possessed the power to feed everyone amply at no greater cost than that of Caesar’s own table, the people would sweep Caesar violently away if anyone were left to starve. But the bourgeois system of ownership demands that knowledge and culture be rationed by the ability to pay.—Eben Moglen dotCommunist Manifesto

The idea of copyright did not exist in ancient times, when authors frequently copied other authors at length in works of non-fiction. This practice was useful, and is the only way many authors’ works have survived even in part. Richard Stallman

There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary public interest.  Robert Heinlein

You may believe that copyright rows are a relatively modern phenomenon but you would be mistaken – the world’s first copyright law, known as the Statute of Anne was introduced in England in 1709. The language used by the publishers has a very familiar ring to it. The figure of the struggling author came to the fore and has been a constant ever since. These writers were having their books pirated “…to their very great detriment, and too often to the ruin of them and their families.” It proved to be a most effective lobbying strategy. In a classic example of public choice economics, a few motivated lobbyists were able to get legislation through which benefited them a lot while spreading the costs out over the rest of the population. And remember this “vital” law was passed before the Great Reform Acts, the abolition of slavery and London had a sewerage system.

Now once again the issue of copyright is in the limelight. The modern creative industries are at war with illegal downloaders. The economic argument in favour of copyright is that a monopoly is a necessary evil to give an incentive to people to create something of value. The logic is that if people weren’t paid, they wouldn’t engage in these activities. I think this argument has some truth in it but there was a lot of human creativity before copyright laws came along.

One argument we hear is that file sharing is theft – like stealing a car. That is not strictly accurate. The difference between a song or a film and a biscuit is that if I eat a biscuit, then you can’t have it because I’ve eaten it and it’s gone. A song or a film are what economists call nonrival goods, those which may be consumed by one consumer without preventing simultaneous consumption by others. This is a characteristic of intellectual property – it can be enjoyed by many people at the same time,

Since 1709 there has been a battle about copyright. The spark has usually been some technological development. The content providers always like to talk in apocalyptic terms about piracy being the end of culture as we know it. The latest round in this battle has been with the internet, which has so far been able to defeat the copyright industries. But it’s not been for want of trying; they’ve sued the operators of file sharing networks as well as some individual downloaders in the United States. They have won many of those cases, but filesharing has continued unabated. Now France has its three strikes law. Let’s put this in some kind of perspective – I think movies and DVD sales are pretty healthy and I don’t think we’ll be seeing Robbie Williams sweeping the streets any time soon.

Record companies, for example, have made a lot of mistakes. They have failed to adapt to changing times .The idea of extending copyright from fifty to seventy years is one example. There can surely be no justification for such a measure. There will surely be business opportunities but they need a different model. Singers and groups will be able to make money from concerts and merchandising. I also think €1 for a song is a bit steep. Amazon charging $9.99 for a book to read on its Kindle falls into the same category. I realise that value is a very subjective question but these prices don’t seem the money saved in distribution costs.

I can sympathise with record companies and other content providers. They have seen their whole world turned upside down. The digital transition is proving a golden age for free culture. Information does truly want to be free. I don’t know how long this situation is going to last. I think people like Rupert Murdoch are going to have a hard time trying to get anyone to pay. In the current round of copyright wars, there’s probably greed on both sides – on the part of corporate owners wanting ever more expansive rights, and on the other hand, amongst those who are the most enthusiastic peer-to-peer file sharers believing everything can be free. There’s no doubt that the majority of musicians, film makers and other artists don’t live the life of rock stars. What we need to look at whether copyright law is the best way to promote activity.

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