Blog posts on copyright always kick up controversy: Thieves hate to be called out on their behavior, and there are entire hordes of people on the Internet dedicated to breaking down the centuries-old practice of protecting intellectual property. I find it kind of odd, honestly.
I will admit to helping fuel a little of that fire by being intemperate in my comments about Matthew Yglesias’s original post that so got my dander up. A brief recap: He argued that copyright law is in place to protect consumers, whereas I argued that copyright law is in place to protect the owners of intellectual property. As Ben Sheffner pointed out at Copyrights & Campaigns, the two points actually work in harmony:
I’m not trying to duck by saying both are [right], and that these two passages are not necessarily in conflict. What I mean is that the purpose of copyright is (as Yglesias says) to encourage creation of works – by (as Bunch says) “protect[ing] the intellectual property created by artists so they are rewarded for their efforts.”
I think that’s about right; if I hadn’t been so committed to my blustery response, I probably would have seen that.* So allow me to briefly apologize for adding to the coarseness that so dominates the blogosphere.
Still, that coarseness has helped revive a number of arguments against copyright, most of which are either specious or silly or both. You can scan through them at the original post, but I’ll hit on what I consider to be the highlights here and offer a quick rebuttal to each. I’ll put them after the jump, because this post is getting a little long:
- Copyright is a “monopoly” or a “subsidy” granted by the state. It is a “tax” levied on the consumer. This argument is the easiest to knock down because it’s based on a total misunderstanding of what the words “monopoly,” “tax” and “subsidy” mean. As Mark Helprin noted in Digital Barbarism, “Based apparently on the belief that all property and labor are held in common, and that wealth is something distributed by the government rather than created by those the government taxes … the author of this judgment does not know the meaning of the word subsidy and thinks someone is a beggar and a freeloader for objecting to a proposal to command the product of other people’s labor without charge. … Copyright is not a tax. It is not a tax any more than a workman’s wage or the price a merchant receives for a sale, or a fisherman for his fish, is a tax. One of the differences between a price and a tax is that the latter is compelled.”
- You’re an idiot for arguing that there’s no difference between the intent of copyright in the days of the founders and the purpose of copyright law today. I found this to be the most baffling of the frequently made comments. Anyone who argues that the understanding of copyright hasn’t evolved over the last 250 or so years is either ignorant or disingenuous. Between the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act, the DMCA, and earlier legislation — passed by the Congress, signed by the president, and upheld by the Supreme Court — there has been a pretty clear shift in favor of protecting the rights of authors and the holders of intellectual property by extending their copyrights, especially in the arts.
- Quit calling it theft! Piracy isn’t a crime, it’s a civil matter! Again, this is just false. Watch the beginning of a DVD sometime; there’s a warning from the FBI that any unauthorized reproduction, distribution, etc. of a movie is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine. Remember when George Costanza got arrested for pirating Cry, Cry Again? He wasn’t arrested by suits from the studios. It was the cops.
- Quit calling it theft! You’re not depriving anyone of their property! That takes an awfully limited view of property. And I would say that the precipitous decline in revenues of the music industry helps prove that point: People are buying less music because there’s no need to. Young people have been the prime target for record sales since before the Beatles hit the scene. Now young people have grown accustomed to downloading music for free and have found communities of people willing not just to endorse the theft but to celebrate and revel in it. You’re going to tell me that hasn’t led to real losses in revenue from people saying “Hey, why should I buy this music that I want when I can get it for free?” You’re living in a fantasy world if you are.
- That revenue decline was overdue anyway; the marginal cost of producing an album is zero, which is what albums will end up costing. It’s a law of economics. Well, I won’t pretend to be a crack economist or anything, but I would say that a.) the effect of illegal filesharing has created a situation in which the market isn’t being allowed to work, and b.) if music becomes free, where will new music come from? On a.) think of the market for candy bars: If the store charges $1 for Snickers bars while the guy who hijacked a Snickers truck gives them away for free, how long will people buy them for $1? And if no one’s paying for their Snickers bars because they can get them for free from Robin Hood ’round the corner, how long will it be before Mars says “Eff it, we’re not making Snickers bars any more, there’s just no money in it?” On b.) it’s just common sense: If the marginal cost of a digital download is zero, how long will it be before no new music is made. Or the only music out there is terribly made garage band stuff? This problem goes double in film, where the average movie costs tens of millions of dollars to produce. Even cheap films that don’t invest heavily in actors cost a great deal to make: Film is expensive, cameras are expensive, locations cost money to shoot in. If a movie costs zero to distribute and therefore all you can get from it is zero, who’s going to make the investment and produce more films?
- You really believe that as a consumer I should not have complete access to what I legally purchase? Honestly, I don’t care what you do with music/movies you purchase in the privacy of your own home. Copy it to a dozen backup CDs if you’d like. Put it on 15 different iPods. What I care about is you taking the information on that CD/DVD and make it available to the world for nothing. You’re engaging in piracy and responsible for theft. It is a noncontroversial point that street corner piracy — the guys who pull a Costanza and sneak a video camera into theaters then sell DVDs of those bootlegs on the street — is breaking the law. How is it any better to give the material away for free instead of charging for it? It’s actually probably worse, given that paying some small amount (versus getting it for free) is a huge deterrent: Witness the madness that has accompanied the five cent bag tax in DC.
- I’d be perfectly happy without new movies and music if it meant an end to DRM and draconian countermeasures/Who needs new art? The first thought is the definition of cutting off your nose to spite your face, while the second is the definition of philistinism. I pity a society whose members don’t value art; it speaks to a culture that is on the fast track to bankruptcy.
Well, that’s gone on long enough. What it comes down to is this: You have no right to own something you haven’t paid for. You have no right to steal from artists who have produced the content you have stolen. I find it incredibly disturbing that so many people think that such rights exist.
*I would still argue that the purpose of copyright law is different from the theoretical idea of what copyright is, and that its main purpose to punish those who violate intellectual property, but that’s all semantics.