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Copyright, incentive and freedom

Written By : Ron Coleman
April 18, 2010

“Information wants to be free.” I must have mocked those words dozens of times on my blog.  Or a few.   I might be counting the times I just thought that. Either way, that expression is not an argument. It’s a statement of ideological faith. The pro-copyright right has its own religion on this, too.

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The music industry, for example, demonstrates its faith via windmill-tilting-based litigation genuflection. The best way to describe its approach copyright enforcement is to think of “mass tort” litigation seen through the wrong end of a telescope*–indeed, as it turns out, the “mass” is there in terms of the litigation, but it seems not so much in terms of the harm. (Was anyone ever really fooled by that number? Not LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®.)

You don’t have to be a know-nothing, however, to believe that copyright still makes sense, at least conceptually. Take Tracey Armstrong:

Copyright holders have the right to price and term the works that they have created, the works that they own. Thats a stake in the ground. I couldnt do what I do for a living without believing that, says Tracey Armstrong, CEO of the Copyright Clearance Center, in a conversation earlier this week on the future of copyright. We couldnt foresee the iPad back in 1985, so digitization and the complications that come with it are what were working on right now.

Well, okay, the fact that you’re paid to believe something doesn’t make it true, either–just ask a lawyer. But she’s right. More:

I agree with the statement that everyone is now a publisher, she says, and what that means is a tremendous proliferation of material that is copyrighted and can be licensed. She describes this as the atomization of content - books being offered as individual chapters and paragraphs, computer software being parsed into individual lines of code - a phenomenon that is causing exponential growth in the number of granular elements that are available to be licensed.
Of course, she adds, the market is not infinitely elastic - and notes that there is plenty of information that will be offered for free, or will have to be.

Then again, there are the iconic, high value works that will never be offered for free.

Maybe. Probably. “Iconic”? Probably less than ever. But notwithstanding that there is a new world of free content out there, few of those with the most to offer are not going to invest their best efforts in the creation of high-grade works, in any medium, just to have it deemed what one commenter at CCS link above called “collective social product.” That’s just lefty liturgy for you right there–nonsense. Copyright is creaking under the weight of the digital revolution–more on that below. But that doesn’t affect the fundamental rationale for it. Creators and those who invest in the publication and distribution of creative works are morally entitled to, and respond in a socially beneficial way, to the incentive created by their expectations of enjoying a limited monopoly over the fruits of that investment.

It’s particularly ironic, in light of this self-evident truth, for left-wingers to utilize sloganeering such as “collective social product” in arguing against copyright. In their rush to “liberate” property and the “means of production” they’re abandoning the labor theory of value meant to justify collectivism as against our natural inclinations. On the one hand, we expect to control the fruit of our efforts. On the other hand, yes, let us resist the raw conception that market price is the only criterion of “value” in human intercourse–even with respect to creativity.
But copyright does not reward the arbitrary capturing and bottling of “knowledge,” but rather the tangible expression of it and the investment of effort and resources by the “knowledge worker” in bringing it to the market. True, the rest is negotiable, but copyright in its ideal form is a very reasonable assignment of rights as to these expectations.

Now this assertion would seem belied by the change from a regime in which only a handful of publishers decided what would be published and distributed and at what price, to one in which free publication of valuable substantive content is ubiquitous. Why is so much quality free content published if people need copyright as an incentive? The reason is that there are many kinds of incentives, not all of them financial or amenable to easy “disclosure ” or pricing. We publish for free to enhance a professional reputation; to advertise one’s services; to seek the attention of those who might pay you for more intensive or comprehensive content; to be part of or affect debate; to gratify one’s ego. None of these motivations means either that the “content” published for inherently “should be” free or that any other content that isn’t free “should be” free.
I’m not sure Tracy Armstrong is necessarily loaded for bear in her campaign to convince the rest of the world of this, however.  Read More>>

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