Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why Should We Protect Copyright?

Photo Credit: Horia Varlan
Dean Baker, over at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, raises the fantastic point that government enforcement of copyright law enables small groups of individuals to become very wealthy in our economy. He points out that "an increasing share of sales of music is going to a relatively small number of big hit performers," and that this is because our government has decided to prioritize the enforcement of copyright infringement that happens via new technologies.

The most important thing to recognize about this line of argument is that this state of affairs is a policy choice. It should not be our default assumption that copyrights need to be stringently enforced, but these policies have been put in place because people with a strong interest in them have considerable weight to throw around.

It is far from clear that the current policy is optimal. The reason we protect copyrights is that we want to incentivize the production of creative works. But, especially in the domain of the arts, there is hardly a dearth of creative production. One point I often make is that people seem to like making art for its own sake, so we should be skeptical about claims that artists need excessive incentives.

To a lot of people, it just seems fitting and obvious that artists producing popular works should have very high compensation. But this is simply because we are used to the status quo, and don't see this state of affairs as the reflection of decisions made by our society. If we wanted, we could have very different practices when it comes to protecting creative work.

Consider my line of work, teaching students with behavioral challenges. For a particular student, I might come up with a treatment method or behavior management technique that is particularly unique and effective. We can imagine a society in which this kind of activity, coming up with new approaches to treat behavioral conditions, was strongly encouraged by using copyright law to restrict the implementation of this new method. From then on, if parents wanted to use this method, or other teachers wanted to use it, they would have to pay me.

I think there are pretty good reasons the world doesn't work this way. But the fact that the world works the way it does is a choice we make, and we could have made a different choice were we to find different reasons compelling. And we should be willing to re-examine our the reasons we have for certain policy decisions, especially if those policies are most strongly supported by individuals whose interests are favored by the policies.

We should be concerned when that copyrights are making some individuals very wealthy, and imposing costs on others. And the fact that we restrict the distribution of creative works impedes our society, potentially in ways that are counterproductive to our goals for creating these restrictions in the first place. If the world with strict copyright protections is one in which creative works generally are shared less, developed less, and enjoyed less than a world with more relaxed regulations, then we are really just shooting ourselves in the foot.

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