Copyright as Promotion: When is enough, enough?

January 4, 2009

Having (yet another) discussion on Copyright, and I’m starting to wonder about its core value in a world of excess.  The Constitution states the goal of Copyright (and its siblings) as:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

So it’s pretty clear that the whole value is promoting more of a good thing, which is only sensible based on a backdrop of not having enough of that good thing without it.  But I’m wondering, do we really not have enough?

Here are a couple musings to a private list on that topic.  First, regarding whether the notion of abolition is too extreme to even consider, versus just fixing what’s there:

Totally agree about fixing before abolishing, in general.  But under what circumstances would you feel abolition is actually warranted?

We’ve already agreed that:

1) It doesn’t accomplish its Constitutional objectives
2) It accomplishes unintended, damaging objectives

Were those alone, I agree, fixing might be in order.  But I’d also add:

3) Its original objectives have already been accomplished

This is not to say that all “science and useful arts” are done.  Rather, it’s to say that they have been successfully promoted.  We’re deluged with it.

Our patent office, once at risk of shutting down from a lack of applications, is overwhelmed with a multi-year backlog.  Our libraries and bookstores and iPods are full.

Nearly every US Citizen has nearly limitless access at nearly zero cost to nearly all human knowledge, 24/7, from their phone, nearly anywhere in the world.

What a luxury!  Our debate shouldn’t be about encouraging the creation of more information — you could read new books while simultaneously listening to new music and watching new movies, continuously, from birth to death, and never exhaust our supply.

Rather, we should be debating how to further expand the reach of existing information to every world citizen, in every socio-economic group.  And not just because it’s so obviously the “right” thing to do, but because it will also make us even richer!

Basically, if today’s reality doesn’t call for the abolition of copyright, what reality *would*?  Or are you so wedded to the notion of Copyright that there is no universe in which you feel it shouldn’t exist?  Do you feel it’s an inviolate, human right — so strong a right that all other rights should be discarded in its pursuit?

-david

PS: And before I’m accused of being a socialist, let’s remember the alternative: creating a global tax to centrally fund the production of all art.  Similarly, it’s not a call for communism: the most successful capitalist enterprises that deal with information deal with maximizing free access to unlimited information.

Then, in response to a concern that (roughly) “it’s working so well and people are lapping it up, why stop now?”

The success of past promotion doesn’t imply the need for more.

Nor does acceptance of government promotion imply its necessity.

If the government secured exclusive rights to — say — donut flavors, I would fully expect donut makers to accept it.  It’s also possible such rights would contribute to a rise in the creation and consumption of donuts in our society. **

But that doesn’t mean we need more donuts in the first place.

The question is whether Copyright is a means to an end, or a universal, human right.  If it’s the former, then it’s important to understand when that end has been reached, and to stop.  But we discuss it generally as if it’s the latter — as if no amount of promotion is enough or, heaven forbid, too much, no matter what the cost.

-david

** Though I wager it’s more likely Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme would just put all other donut vendors out of business.

Basically, when is enough enough?  Even if it was promoting useful science and art (probable), and if if it still is (incredibly unlikely), does that goal even matter anymore?

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