06 August 2011

Copyright Versus Technology


Consumers are watching as many – if not more – films than ever for less money and time than ever, for a third of the cost. The money that had been spent on (now unneeded) overheads can go on other things. Be sure to avoid the broken window fallacy – the saved money will go into other productive things that people want. As Blockbuster falls, something else people want will rise. And, at the margin, lower costs mean that there should be more movies made per dollar spent.
I think this pattern might hold elsewhere, too. Since getting a Kindle e-reader in June, I've read more books than I did in the entire year up to that point.
Although costs aren't falling yet – it's a proprietary Amazon device, and they're keeping the costs high while subsidising the cost of the device itself – the shift to e-readers means that authors will eventually be able to bypass publishers and significantly increase their profit-per-purchase. Like the rise of Netflix, this will probably mean less money spent on overheads and more spent on actual content.

Recall that those who defend copyright laws on utilitarian grounds argue essentially that the purpose of granting creators a temporary monopoly license is to ensure that people have an incentive to create.  This being the case, one reasonable proposal to be offered to the utilitarian sect of copyright defenders is to decrease creators’ state-granted monopoly powers as technological innovation increases.*

Technological growth reduces publication and distribution costs for creators, enabling them to not only sell directly, but to increase their profit margins while decreasing prices.  As such, monopoly protections are less necessary (if not altogether unnecessary) in the face of technological growth because technology makes it easier for creators to turn a profit, which, it should be remembered, is the whole point of having copyright laws in the first place.  Thus, if creators can make a profit without doing much to protect their product, then it seems obvious to conclude that copyright is largely unnecessary, and certainly does not draconian enforcement.

Note:  Software is a nebulous entity that is somewhere between copyrightable and patentable in terms of classification.  As such, it is not covered under this proposal because it would drive this proposal.  If it absolutely must be given IP status, it should be considered its own entity with longer terms than patents but shorter terms than copyright.  Furthermore, it should also have the novelty prerequisite of patents.  Given the complexity of this subject, though, this discussion is best reserved for another post.

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