Being a mathematician at heart, I tend to return to first principles to resolve an issue. To talk about the modern mess that is copyright and/or intellectual property, we’re going to consider the purveyors of this mess: corporations. Why is this the case? The original foundations of copyright: that it was a limited monopoly on producing a work — core to the limited monopoly was it’s expiration — often in 7 to 10 years would adequately encourage authors to create works. Indeed, people created works before copyright, but copyright was envisioned to create more works and a greater variety of works.
In whose interest is the current copyright act (commonly held to be the age of Micky Mouse plus 10 years)? With copyright lasting more than 50 years past the death of the original author in most cases, who does this encourage? Can an author sell his work for more money? Since these copyright extensions are recent developments, no. Can a contemporary author sell his work for more? Not likely again. 90% or more of the revenue for a work occurs in the first year or two of it’s existence. The publisher’s offer will reflect this.
Plainly, modern copyright, no matter how you cut it, is firmly across the line and benefiting the corporations that own the vast majority of the world’s copyrights.
The road to this, however, is not a road of creative works and lobbying by authors, it’s the story of the corporation.
The corporation was originally conceived as a way to encourage a larger number of people to share a company — such that the pool of resources (largely money) would be that much larger and therefore the company could undertake that much grander enterprises. The Dutch East India Company is often offered as the earliest examples, but company-like structures existed at least as far back as the Roman empire. Certainly corporate law has been successful in creating enterprises larger than a single person or family could build.
The problem that has occurred, however, is that companies have discovered that manipulating the world of politics can have significant impact on their profit.
The problem with this is that companies aren’t people. They have some of the attributes of people — they pay taxes (although differently), they are responsible for their actions in a court of law (although differently, again). But companies aren’t people. They cannot be criminally responsible. They cannot exist without people in charge and most importantly, they cannot vote. We call that franchise or suffrage.
Herein lies my first major point here: Government and the laws they create (including those regarding copyright) serve the people. To the extent that X voters own a record company (and agree with it), they may express their views. To the extent that artists live in Canada (my country for this argument), they also have franchise. The record (or other) company doesn’t have franchise. The American (not my country for this argument) artist doesn’t have franchise (in Canada). A company might argue that there may be repercussions (like they might take their media and go home) if we don’t enact certain limitations on our liberty — but I honestly want to challenge them on this. I strongly believe things won’t play out as they believe.
It is true that we bargain the respect of foreign copyright for the respect of our own copyright abroad — and that is a sensible position for government that respects their service to the people. But it’s also true that beyond the protections we desire for our works, we need not continue to bargain. At this point we could veer of into the weeds of international diplomacy. Maybe Americans would give us less hassles at the border if we pilloried anyone caught with a video camera in a movie theatre — but that argument is just what it seems — an additional bargain they might seek if they wish more protection.
We also have international standards for copyright. Many of these standards have been deeply influenced by non-governmental (ie: non-people) organizations. Recently some of these organizations have been successfully lobbied in the interests of people — and we’ll come back to this point.
There isn’t some moral or fundamental right to copyright. It is not a human need. It is possible to live a healthy, happy and productive life without copyright. Recent history of the internet has even shown that humans have strong incentive to share media. One interesting little study showed that people share media without expectation of any gain whatsoever. Music and stories have strong effects on our personal and collective psyche. Our compulsion to share music and stores appears to be driven by a deep seated need to have shared experiences with our peers.
Current copyright also ignores the contribution the user plays in media. Like my blog, a song or a story is a “tree falling in the forest” problem if it isn’t shared at all. The value of a media property increases in proportion to the number of people that enjoy it. This is a network effect but most interestingly, it’s not something that can be bought or traded — it is truly the people that create the value in the media property. Where is that value respected in copyright? We’ll come back to that.
While doing some research for this article, I came across several posts that talked about the fact that we outsource the locating of valuable media to the major labels. They do the legwork to find the artists we want and in return we should buy their CDs and DVDs. This is an interesting argument but it is also shutdown by peer to peer culture. In one sense, peer to peer sharing mitigates the chance of buying stuff you don’t like — a sort of try before you buy. The same studies that show that people are willing to search for their own artists (and even enjoy this search — even though it’s potentially more costly than the major media companies — it’s also more personal and more accurate) show that peer to peer users who share music buy more (much more) music than non peer to peer users.
Let’s bring this all back around and make a point. Because copyright is a limited right created only to encourage artists (and not large companies); and because companies have no fundamental right to argue their case on this issue; and because substantial portions of the value of a work accrue from the users of that work; and because most of the real revenue for a work occurs in the first few years — we should be generally looking at less copyright than more. We should be looking at a 7 to 10 year maximum copyright and greater exceptions regarding fair use.
People create without incentive. The internet is proof positive enough of that. Our only question is: “What is the minimum extra incentive that produces the maximum amount of additional media.” If, in our different world, a movie would only earn money for 7 to 10 years, would movie companies still make movies? I have a hard time believing anyone who says they wouldn’t. Movies are declared a success for a flop within 3 days of release.
It might mean that a movie studio that sits on a property too long would be outsmarted by a faster moving competitor — but I hardly regard that as a downside.
All over the world, intellectual property law of all kinds has been in the news. Large interests have been working hard to secretly press through treaties like ACTA. These agreements and treaties have been drafted in secret to bypass normal international bodies that have public scrutiny. It’s not enough to desire copyright reform or react to new legislation from your government — due to the slimy “do whatever it takes” nature of the mega media industry we all need to be a little proactive.
I highly recommend that in addition to my blog, you follow Michael Geist’s blog. I linked to his posts on ACTA above and I’ll probably be taking some future post ideas from his blog, too. Whatever you think of his views, Michael has been encouraging a fair and open discussion of intellectual property laws in Canada. This is a vitally important function since few of the participants seem to be able to act like adults in public. Seriously: some the most shameful recent moments in Canadian politics have been related to intellectual property reform.