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After Copyright

April 25, 2012

In a previous article, I talk about the coming war between the thetes and the intellectual monopolists. I predict that the thetes will win and intellectual property will cease to be coercively enforced. However, this would certainly not mean the end of creative expression. Artists would continue to produce, and even profit in a world without intellectual monopoly.

Old knowledge is a public good – it is neither excludable nor rival. New creations, without copyright, are in some ways common pool resources – non-excludable, but because culture requires continual addition, subject to the tragedy of the commons, not from people taking too much, but from people never creating to begin with. Because the value of knowledge is so perishable, continuous effort is required to keep the stock of knowledge useful and relevant for people.

Society needs to have some mechanisms to encourage people to contribute to the knowledge commons. Better than Free, by Kevin Kelly has written about how content creators can continue to earn a living, but his solutions revolve around coming up with superior niche products for the few: custom products, good customer support, complementary goods, etc. Rather, I would like to address how mass content can continue to be produced.

The simplest method is self-patronage: doing the work for fun, and releasing it to the world. The open source community has proven again and again how powerful this paradigm can be, but when large capital investments are required, sometimes it doesn’t cut it. If you can’t get paid after a work is created, you have to get paid before, and that’s where patronage comes in. In the patronage system, a wealthy benefactor, or group of benefactors, pays artists to create. The private benefit the patrons get is sufficient to fund the creation, so no post-hoc reward or control is necessary to sustain the system. In the past, aristocrats and the Church were common patrons, but perhaps the best recent example of a patronage system is Kickstarter. Patronage allows people to affiliate with artists they like while ensuring a steady flow of new art, and even have a say in the types of things produced.

It is important to remember that humanity has gotten along without copyrights for most of its history, and many thriving creative markets thrive without copyright, such as game mechanics, fashion, and food. Also, when we see examples of times when copyright has been poorly enforced, content production, if anything, increases. If copyrights were reduced, or even eliminated, I would not expect a dramatic decrease in content production. Remember that prices are irrelevant to welfare, only quantities, because whatever amount is lost by the buyer is exactly gained by the seller.

Further Reading:
A Mises Institute Wiki on this subject – it is an excellent overview of the subject.
Patronage and Opera
IP and Copyright Ethics
Can Writers prosper without copyright
Elinor Ostrom on Knowledge Commons
Copyright and Profit 1790-1920

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Zeph permalink
    April 25, 2012 9:49 am

    Well said! This is highly relevant to my interests, as you know.

    • April 25, 2012 9:53 am

      Good to hear. This blog is becoming more and more about copyright, especially with Teresa posting. She got me addicted to Kickstarter. If you have time, look into the Mises institute link.

  2. Chris G permalink
    April 26, 2012 12:59 pm

    I enjoy your copyright musings & insights. I’d like to embrace the idea of its abolition wholeheartedly. But it’s hard to see how attribution fraud could be avoided without either IP or an entirely new law. And how would investigative news outlets survive?

    • April 26, 2012 1:29 pm

      People, even IP abolitionists, tend to be pretty bothered by people trying to take credit for someone else’s work. I would be fine with misattribution remaining criminal.

      In terms of incentives to lie:
      a.) How fast would you be caught? I think you’ll be found out rather quickly, given the availability of information on the internet.
      b.) How would you profit from attribution fraud, if you can’t sell copies for a positive amount?
      c.) How hard would it be to trick people into patronizing you for the second round of production? Reputation and branding would play a big role. This is something markets do well. Trustworthy content creators could band together and certify their work.

      Finally, copyright is no defense against people claiming another’s work now. I can say I was the lead programmer for Mass Effect, and there would be nothing under the current law that anyone could do about it. If current law does little to stop a behavior, and that behavior is not common or problematic, I tend not to worry about that behavior under future policy environments. Perhaps that is my libertarian bias, but I mostly assume that things will work out ok, if they’ve worked out ok in the past.

      Investigative news relies on speed and trustworthiness, not necessarily strict enforcement of their monopoly on production. The value of information about “what is happening” is going to drop, no matter the copyright regime. Simply put, when everyone carries a video camera linked to the internet with them wherever they go, you don’t get much marginal benefit from adding one more person to the mix who happens to be paid for it. Journalism will probably move from pure information to timely and trustworthy analysis.

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