Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rethinking copyright

What if there were "replicators" with which you could make any object at minimal expense? Someone responding to a Slashdot article seemed to think this would be a bad thing:
And once everyone had a replicator - everyone would replicate the newest, coolest, best car. [...] And all of the advancement and innovation that we've seen since the first car and now would grind to a halt.
Others pointed out how flawed this is:
Since you can duplicate everything, including food and shelter, the whole idea of working to survive goes out the window. If such a device existed, you would be free to do whatever you please with your time. For many, this would be designing amazing cars. For others it would be building amazing cars. Everyone has a hobby, and a replicator would enable everyone to pursue their hobbies; hobbies that are often out of reach of the average person today.
But really the topic of the article was copyright, so I made the following argument.

Reality disagrees with you. Almost everybody now has a replicator--of bits and bytes. Yet somehow the companies that make brand new songs, software, movies and TV shows stay in business while continuing to make major profits. The biggest stars still make millions of dollars per year, and Big Content spends as much on blockbuster films as ever. The cable companies manage to get upwards of $600 per year from typical customers, and for all that money you still have to put up with 15 minutes of ads per hour and you still don't get to watch shows on-demand.

Somehow, people are still willing to pay for things they could copy for free. Partly this is because of Big Content's success in lobbying for powerful laws in their favor, and in using those laws to shut down networks and individuals that share files. Partly it may be that sheeple actually do believe ads that compare copying a song to stealing a car (it's frustrating how many people think this way!) For me, it is sense that those who make the best movies and music deserve to get paid, and I pay for those works that I like (provided that the price is reasonable and the DRM is not excessive).

Our society greatly benefits from the fact that people do not steal from a supermarket just because they can avoid getting caught. Recently I read about an incident where the staff of a grocery store were missing, but customers generally left money to pay for their purchases. That people are generally good means less resources must be wasted on security and prisons (which themselves produce nothing useful), people are less afraid of other people, and people less often have the unpleasant experience of being robbed.

Because people are generally good, they are willing to pay for copyrighted works even though copying them (unlike stealing physical objects) technically does not hurt anyone. Generally good people (GGP) know that these things must be paid for or they will not be produced in the first place. It's a principle we all understand, except perhaps Big Content, who assume their customers are criminals. And so, we the GGP have some willingness to do our part by paying for copyrighted works, just as we are willing to pay taxes and do occasional volunteer work and give a bit to charity and not steal from the supermarket.

Big Content, however, does not want merely to have enough money to pay for a healthy music and film market--they always want to increase profits if possible, regardless of what they get now. Consider how much smaller the market for films was in 1960: the world population was only 3 billion and American films would probably have had a very small market beyond North America. Did the movie companies ever complain then that there were not enough humans available to buy copies? Today the potential market is nearly 7 billion and the actual market is probably several times larger than it was in 1960, yet film companies complain very loudly if, say, 1/6 of that market (China) is not paying them enough. Do they really need the money? Of course not: if money was tight they would simply scale back movie budgets, just as budgets were necessarily small in 1960. Certainly low-income pirates in no way prevent them from making movies, and the actual movie budgets of today prove that they are doing very well for themselves. Even if you took away the entire third world market, the would still have a good billion potential customers left.

But in copyright markets, the cost of "buying" a work has almost nothing to do with covering the cost of production: a movie DVD that costs $10 may be for something expected to take a heavy loss like Waterworld, or for something that has already made billions of dollars in profit like Star Wars, and certainly doesn't "need" more. Likewise, their rhetoric about people losing their livelihoods from "piracy" does not necessarily bear any resemblance to their actual financial health. Maybe copying is a serious threat, maybe not, but their rhetoric is always the same regardless of the truth.

Big Content, unlike generally good people, have no sense of fairness. While sometimes they take losses, the potential for "jackpots" like Star Wars means they would surely oppose anything to make copyright more fair, like limiting copyright to 28 years, or that takes advantage of humans' natural goodness (like removing DRM and repealing the DMCA, or my personal favorite, a more radical rethinking of copyright that would let citizens buy the right to copy works for free, paying some minimum amount yearly for this privilege based on income level).

I am tired of this stubborn belief that restricting our civil liberties (specifically, the personal right to copy) is the only way to ensure new works are created. I am also tired of the argument that Big Content "deserves" every penny it makes and that people don't "deserve" the freedom to copy. "Deserves" is a moral judgement. Big Content doesn't use morality to make business decisions or to decide what laws they will lobby for. Big Content doesn't use morality to select prices. Big Content doesn't use morality to select DRM schemes. Why should the rest of us, therefore, make a moral judgment that they "deserve" the profit they get from us?

...That was what I posted. But let me add something.

Copyright is not a right

The most common and annoying perceptual error people make with copyright is that they consider it a "right" - like the right to life, the right of free speech, or the right to move freely throughout the country. Copyright, however, is the exact opposite of these important rights. Normal rights prevent certain parties (especially the government) from doing bad things to you--no matter who "you" are. Normal rights limit the amount of control others have over you. For the most part, they allow you to be left alone. Copyright, however, is not a right to copy; rather, it is the right for an "owner" to prevent other people from copying. To prevent you from copying. In an age where copying is as natural as eating or sleeping, it prevents you, the commoner, from being left alone.

Some authors will claim they have the "right" to make money from their work and that this justifies ever-expanding copyright law. Wrong. You only have the right to try to make money. Laws that help you make money are provided by the government, and they should not be considered rights, any more than subsidies on corn or government science grants. And if you ask me, the 300-year-old copyright model is just plain wrong for the modern age. Copyright itself doesn't grant you the "right" to make money, only the power (if you have the lawyers for it!) to restrict copying, and this only helps you make money in a roundabout way: typically, you prevent all copies except the ones you make, then charge money for those. This system sucks because it denies money to authors of some of the most valuable works society produces: open source software.

Open source software provides tons of value to society precisely because it is copied so freely, yet copyright provides no money whatsoever to authors of said software. While free software refutes the claim that "no one would make music/video/software if they weren't paid", the fact is that without monetary benefit, the free software ecosystem usually produces software of lower quality than commercial rivals (with a few exceptions such as Firefox, or cases where commercial software is of low quality due to niche status or a monopoly market). Open source is a better model of software development, but because there is usually no funding for extensive testing or documentation and, since free software authors must have a "day job" to make money, free software gets much less time put into it than it needs. If the government provided some way for these authors to be paid for their work, open source might well explode in quantity and quality. I, for one, would give up my $44K-a-year job doing closed source, if I could do open source software of my choosing at minimum wage.

Intellectual property is imaginary property. I wish I could persuade society that copyright is neither the only nor the best system to pay authors for their work. But the ones who benefit most from copyright are the same people involved in writing copyright and related laws, evangelizing it (you've seen the anti-piracy ads), and thrusting it upon the world through international treaties. Supporters of true freedom--real rights--have no such financial or political clout, and so our ideas are censored by glut.

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