22 March 2011

The End of Copyright's Social Contract

Copyright is based on a social contract. In return for a government-enforced, time-limited monopoly, artists create - the idea being that without that monopoly, it would not be worth their while to produce works because copies could be made that would undermine their value and hence the artists' livelihood.

Of course, this flies in the face of the fact that Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Bach and all the rest enjoyed no copyright in their works, and yet, demonstrably, produced rather a lot of rather good stuff.

Ah, yes, but, the content industry will retort: things are different now, etc. etc. The trouble is, we have no way of testing whether things really are different now - in other words, whether, in the absence of copyright, people would carry on creating.

Well, actually we do, because the almost universal sharing of music and other content is effectively creating a copyright-free world for digital artefacts. For recorded music, which is now overwhelmingly digital, that means what is more or less a copyright-free world. And so, following the logic of the industry, music creativity should be falling through the floor as musicians everywhere throw up their hands in despair, crying: "oh, where is my old quid pro quo?"

Given this interesting situation, it would of course be fascinating to know whether that is the case or not. That's a non-trivial piece of research for a number of reasons, but Joel Waldfogel at The Carlson School and Department of Economics, University of Minnesota has made a valiant effort to deal with the problems, and published his results [.pdf]:

In the decade since Napster, most observers have concluded that file-sharing undermines the protection that copyright affords recorded music. What matters for consumers, however, is not sellers’ revenue but whether the diminished appropriability will reduce the availability of new recorded works. The legal monopoly created by copyright is justified by its encouragement of the creation of new works, but there is little evidence on this relationship. The file-sharing era can be viewed as a large-scale experiment allowing us to check whether diminished appropriability stems the supply of new works. Using a novel dataset on the supply of new recorded music derived from retrospective critical assessments of music such best-of-the-decade lists, we compare post-Napster album supply to 1) its pre-Napster level, 2) pre-Napster trends, and 3) a possible control, new song supply following the iTunes Music Store’s revitalization of the single. We find no evidence that recent changes in appropriability have affected the quantity of new, acclaimed recorded music or new artists coming to market. We reconcile a stable flow of new works in the face of decreased demand with evidence on reduced costs of bringing works to market and a growing role of independent labels.

Looks like the social contract can now be torn up: even without that copyright monopoly - and remember, monopolies are bad things - artists are still creating.

Now, one study is hardly definitive proof, but it's suggestive to say the least. In particular, taken together with all the other evidence that sharing really doesn't hurt the music industry overall, it provides another shiny nail for the copryight maximalists' coffin. (Via Michael Geist.)

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15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Who pays you to write, Glyn?

NomDuClavier said...

As far as tearing it up, it's no longer much of a social contract to begin with.

A monopoly for a 'limited time' in exchange for new works that will enter the public domain after that monopoly expires. Except with all of the lengthening of terms courtesy of Sonny Bono & Disney, the public is getting only part of that return during the lifetime in which they're actually sponsoring these artists.

So contract, yes. Social? Not so much.

John Hilton III said...

Great post ... thanks for the link to the Waldfogel article. I would have missed it otherwise. The use of Creative Commons licenses is another interesting test of the utility of copyright.

jezc said...

And yet more academic evidence that downloading and 'piracy' actually has no effect on sales of physical or digital music. http://musicbusinessresearch.wordpress.com/2011/03/21/how-bad-is-music-file-sharing-part-23/

glyn moody said...

@anon: nobody pays me to write here, I do it out of love....

I get paid to write stuff here:

http://blogs.computerworlduk.com/open-enterprise/

and here:

http://www.h-online.com/open/features/The-H-archive-features-by-Glyn-Moody-1183157.html

both of which are freely available.

I sometimes write for other publications, and I also earning money by giving speeches around the world.

These are all possible because I strive to be known as someone who writes and talks reasonably intelligently and interestingly about open source and related issues. In other words, I give away most of my music, but make money from stuff around it....

glyn moody said...

@NomDuClavier - well, yes, you're right, I was being kind in suggesting that we got anything much out of it. But that was the theory 300 years ago, at least...

glyn moody said...

@John - glad you found it interesting. And yes, alternative licensing schemes are all about moving beyond the traditional social contract.

glyn moody said...

@jezc - thanks, I'd not seen that...interesting.

Anonymous said...

If there was no copyright, Glyn, would the publications who pay you keep going? There would be no restrictions whatsoever on numerous other sites cloning the content, perhaps presenting it better. Advertisers might prefer to work with the clone sites than the original ones.

glyn moody said...

@Anonymous: yes, I think they would, because they would be publishing the "official" version of my words.

Yes, those words might well turn up elsewhere, but if I say to my readers that there is an official source, and that this is the best place to read my words, I think most people who want to read me would naturally gravitate there - not least because that site would always be sure to have my words first.

Things aren't black and white, as they once were with copyright, so there's way I can enforce that my readership should *only* come to those sites I recommend; but given that people want to read me words, it's likely - not certain - they will do so where I suggest.

And where the readers go, the advertisers will always follow (and some might even prefer supporting my "official" sites rather than those running the copy without my oversight (they obviously don't need my permission). For example, I will check the copy on recommended sites, whereas on others there is no guarantee the text is right. Again, these are grey issues, but we live in a grey, more subtle world these days...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that officialness/authenticity carries much weight in the digital environment - a copy is identical to the original. As for loyalty - some readers might want to please you; others might not care. I wonder if 'pirates' would buy into that?

As for getting there first, (a) clones could copy within nanoseconds and (b) getting there first might work for journalism but doesn't matter much in other spheres.

glyn moody said...

@Anonymous: well, I think authenticity is actually *all* we have in a digital environment. A copy may be identical to the original, but really the easiest way to ensure that is to follow the author directly.

And this really shows the problem with that "pirates" label: most people share stuff not because they are wicked and evil, but because...they want to share good stuff.

If they can do that in a way to support the creator, I think they will - not least because people realise that without that support, and without the possibility to earn money *in one way or another* there is likely to be less creativity, since some people want to create to make money (but not all.)

Despite what some would have us think, people who share stuff are not stupid - in fact one reason why they share stuff is because they are not stupid and understand about zero marginal cost....

glyn moody said...

@anonymous: ...and yes, you're right, speed isn't really so important, but human nature being what it is, people like to be "in the know"....

Anonymous said...

The problem is that you, like so many others that presume to talk about an industry, deliberately select the top earning tier to base your comments on. The likes of Sonny, Cher and Bono make up less than 1% of their industry. The majority of the rest struggle like the rest. If you are going to presume to advise changes to the law, then you must also be complied to conduct thorough and non misleading analysis of the industries you are seeking to decimate. You should then be compelled to put the median average salary of the people who work in these industries (NOT the top earners which you have selected) and then directly reveal your own salary in dirct comparison to this median average. That way, there will be clear evidence of where the money really lies and I suspect, a few myths that have built up over the last few years, will quickly be dismissed.

glyn moody said...

@anoymous: one of the key points is that copyright only really benefits those superstars. Here's a typical statistic, in this case referring to the recent copyright extension of music performance:

"72 percent of the financial benefits from term extension will accrue to record labels. Of the 28 percent that will go to artists, most of the money will go to superstar acts, with only 4 percent benefiting those musicians mentioned in the European Council press release as facing an "income gap at the end of their life times". Many performers also do not appear to understand that the proposal would lead to a redistribution of income from living to dead artists."

(Via http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20110914/02572215947/cost-copyright-extension-europe-1-billion-euros-paid-public.shtml)

Poorer artists who think that copyright is for their benefit are largely deluding themselves: it is skewed towards precisely the high earners. Getting rid of copyright would allow a fairer distribution towards hard-working artists, not just to the artifically superstars that have been anointed by record labels so that they can exploit the system.

I would welcome an objective analysis of where the money goes, because all the research we do have suggests that it does not go to struggling artists.