Monday, April 04, 2011

Julian Sanchez, Copyright, and the Undeserved Inheritance

Go here to read an excellent, unsentimental piece on copyright by Julian Sanchez (h/t DeLong).

Excerpt follows:

Wise assessment of copyright policy should have nothing to do with how you feel about the person or entity who holds the right at any particular time, because copyright policy is not about identifying wonderful and meritorious people and ensuring—certainly not as an end in itself, anyway—that their income is proportioned to their intrinsic moral desert—or lack thereof. We are all the massive beneficiaries of millennia of accumulated human scientific knowledge and cultural output, and not one of us did anything do deserve a jot of it. We’re all just extremely lucky not to have been born cavemen. The greatest creative genius alive would be hard pressed to create a smiley faced smeared in dung on a tree trunk without that huge and completely undeserved inheritance.
I really liked that first paragraph; it laid down the situation as it stands EXACTLY as it stands. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes. We don't pay them a thing except the intrinsic honor of building edifices upon the foundations of thought and technology that they bequeathed us, with the understanding that the same thing will happen to us, one day.

So banish the word “deserve” from your mind when you think about copyright. Nobody “deserves” a goddamn thing. (I say this, for what it’s worth, as someone who makes his living entirely through the production of “intellectual property.”) The only—the only—relevant question is whether a marginal restriction on the general ability to use information incentivizes enough additional information production over the long run to justify denying that marginal use to every other human being on the planet, whether for simple consumption or further creation. That’s an empirical question, and while I strongly suspect the answer will generally be “not by a longshot” beyond a whole lot more limited level of protection than we currently provide, I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise along any particular dimension. But if you want to make an argument that turns in any significant respect on how unlikeable big corporations are or how marvelous creative people are… well, spare me. And the rest of us. Because in both cases it’s probably true, but as a policy matter, nobody should really give a damn.
I liked this more, though. Sanchez is wonderfully unsentimental here, and discards the hollow "MINE! MINE!" variety of pseudo-morals that tends to underpin this. The only reason the copying monopoly exists is to produce more information and creativity than would exist otherwise, and in an age where more is produced free of charge on the Internet than could ever possibly be consumed, it's sort of a hard argument to make. At best you could argue from quality, and that might work for, say, film and some forms of video games. But things like music and prose writing? Good lord, there's more amateur material out there NOW than you could possibly consume in a lifetime; and while much of it is dreck, there's certainly enough quality there to raise the question of why the lucky few who benefit from the copyright system should be so expansively (and expensively) coddled.

(Of course, I might have a different view if I had ever written for cash; but as you can see by the distinct lack of advertisements on this site, that isn't the case.)

(I use a pseudonym. How would I even cash the cheque?)

Most of the moral arguments revolve around the idea that artists should be paid a fair wage for their work. I'd buy that if artists seemed to give a rat's ass about the fact that nobody else is getting paid for their work. No, I'm not terribly pleased with how the Huffington Post exploits its writers, but it's no different than a thousand other industries where that happens. The plight of the people who are furiously "tweeting" on their iPads about how horrible the Internet is for their profession pales in comparison to the plight of the impoverished, suicidal workers who MADE the damned things to begin with. Are they aware of that? Do they even care?

(Of course, I doubt Sanchez does, being a CATO writer and all; but even libertarians occasionally have their uses.)

Once everybody else gets a fair wage for their labor, then I'll start crying over the plight of Zack Snyder and Miley Cyrus. But I expect that I'm going to have a very, very long wait.

Edit: DeLong's commentators are very much annoyed with a different part of the Sanchez piece, which was about how one shouldn't blame corporations that exploit artists because "bad contracts happen, deal with it". Obviously that's absolutely ridiculous, and why I didn't deign to quote it. It's also not really about copyright in the first place; it's about the political economy of corporate power. It applies to every sector, not just copyright.

Again, libertarians have their uses—but you'd never want to endorse one's arguments wholesale.

Re-Edit: Or, as John Emerson put it: "Deep pockets can break anyone".

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