Crampton on Copyright

Peter Cresswell discusses copyright and says copying without permission of the owner is theft:

Make no mis­take, copy­ing with­out the per­mis­sion of the owner is theft–-no mat­ter how many sappy sugar-coated dit­ties you hear to the contrary.

I don’t think theft is the best word for it, but I agree it is illegal. PC notes however:

The way ACTA proposes protecting intellectual property–by going through people’s bags, laptops and MP3 players at airports; by holding ISPs responsible for what their customers do; etc.–-is hardly in accordance with the principle of property rights they purport to be upholding.

He says this violates the very principles they want to protect.

What I found most interesting is this comment by Eric Crampton on the post:

Strength of copyright protection has never been an absolute: it’s varied in duration and scope over the years. There’s a Laffer curve that operates in copyright as well: zero protection and fewer things will be produced, but too strong of protection and nothing is produced either.

Eric is right. Copyright is not an absolute right. It is a manufactured right that is about a balance of rights. Eric explains:

Let’s take the extreme case over on the right tail of the distribution. Every musician using a chord must pay a royalty to whomever invented that chord, then must pay another royalty to whomever came up with the chord sequence they’re using. Think much music gets produced under that regime? Nope. It’s too costly to produce anything new.

Another example is the right of a newspaper to quote something. If a politician writes on their Facebook page “I think the top tax rate should be 90%” they own the copyright to that statement. Would anyone want a society where it is illegal for a newspaper to report that statement, as they do not have permission of the owner?

Take it to blogs. Suppose copyright didn’t just protect the expression of an idea, but also the idea itself. Would you ever post anything, given fear of being sued by someone who’d previously come up with some idea you’d thought was original to you? Would Landes and Posner sue me for basically restating their argument in the first paragraph?

Spot on.

If you grant those two cases, then the optimal degree of copyright isn’t infinite. The optimal degree isn’t zero either. I’m reasonably convinced that we’ve pushed too far to the right on this curve: the costs of copyright in impeding new creation, at current legal levels of protection, exceeds the benefit of higher returns for those things that are created. And, I’d argue this is mostly due to Disney who earns more off its back catalogue than out of new production. The period of protection is too long, harm is done by excessive protection on orphaned works, and insufficient scope is given to fair use.

Copyright is for a specific term. If it was not, then every school in the western world would probably have to pay royalties to the great great great great great great great great grand nephew of William Shakespeare.

Eric makes a fair point that copyright protection is for too long a period. In the UK protection is for 50 years after making a sound recording, while in the US it is 120 years after creation.

Personally, I’d sooner see copyright abolished in favour of a solution through private contract where folks use creative commons to designate the strength of protection they’d like applied to their own works, but where also we’d deem the extant corpus of common culture (Grimm fairy tales, etc) only being available for commercial use if the folks making the film, book or whatever applied a duration of protection no greater than 20 years or so, helping to rejuvenate the commons from which they drew.

I am a big fan of Creative Commons which makes it easy for creators of works, to set their own terms and conditions of use.

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