The copyright debate I would love to see

The demise of SOPA/PIPA and now the fight over TPP has stoked the embers of the copyright debate, which is a nice side effect in that copyright in the digital age seems like a fluid concept that we should resolve. It has become a battle between creators, distributors, and consumers. And don’t forget, copyright is primarily about property rights.

There are a myriad of opinions about whether copyright law should be changed, how to address privacy, piracy, and whether the rules should be different for digital content. Old line distributors, used to holding most copyrights or extorting them out of the creators, are fighting piracy and privacy by grabbing up as many punitive powers that they can get ahold of. Pirates are violating copyright in part protesting the high legacy distributor pricing schemes or DRM. And creators are questioning the need for middlemen to deliver digital content for a lion’s share of the proceeds.

One of the stranger proposals I’ve seen is from Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR). He proposes completely ending copyright and replacing it with an Artistic Freedom Voucher for those who donate $100 to a creator of their choice. The creator would have to register with the government and release their creation free to the public for five years to receive the money. Dean’s rationale here is that since the content producers don’t make any money off their own copyright, in part because of piracy, they would at least get something for releasing their works for free for up to five years.

Hopefully he is not just averse to paying for books, music or movies.

Seriously, he is a top economist who, for example, called housing bubble when no one else saw it coming. He knows his stuff. But on this issue, I think he’s slipped right off the limb he scooted out on. He assumes that creators don’t make sufficient money  from their copyrighted products. He cites the drop in revenues for the music industry because of the digital transition. However, I think he fails to distinguish between losses to middlemen distributors (record companies) and losses in revenue to the creators. If Rod the Record Exec received a million dollars and gave only $1,000 of it to Moe Musician, Rod would have a long way to go before a cut in his cool million had to be felt by Moe (unless Rod really wants to stick it to him).

And when it comes to writing, software and video, I think we would need to see empirical evidence of this massive drop in income for creators before dispensing with their property rights. Yes, big distributors have seen their income drop, but they were taking a huge share of the revenue anyway. They have trimmed or dropped their midlist producers and bet only on home run hitters like James Patterson, Britney Spears and Steven Spielberg. Many of those cut loose from this outdated system are doing just fine though. And even if not, how does this lead to taking away their property rights? Content distributors could game that system to underpay the creators with some measly vouchers and then sell the uncopyrighted material for five years. Unless the government prohibited them from making any money off of free content (ha ha ha, that would never happen).

I would like to see him discuss this with Cory Doctorow and authors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Baker thinks that piracy cannibalizes sales and there is some research on the music industry that agrees. However, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Rusch have actively explored maximizing their copyright-derived income. I’d love to see Dean Baker’s reaction to their description of how their business model works just fine with copyright. And Cory is so well versed on these issues and has an amazing ability to provide top-notch analysis of these tangly issues. I don’t know where this discussion would end up. I suspect all sides would learn something from such a debate.

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