Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dean Baker doesn't like copyrights:

It's long past time for a little reality check. Copyright dates back to 16th century Venice. It was a mechanism for allowing writers to profit from their work by giving them a state-enforced monopoly. It has continued since that time, with the state-granted monopoly being extended both in scope and duration. Copyrights now cover music, movies, video games, and a wide range of other material. The duration has also been repeatedly extended so that copyrights in the United States now persist for 95 years after the death of the author.

While copyrights do provide an incentive for creative work, they are an extremely inefficient mechanism for this end. It is most efficient when items are sold at their marginal cost. Economists generally get infuriated about the economic distortions that are created when tariffs of 10 percent or 20 percent are placed on items like steel or clothes. In the case of copyrights, material that could otherwise be transferred at zero cost, instead commands prices of $15 for CDs, $30 for movies, and even higher prices for other items, entirely because of the government-granted monopoly. For this reason, the economic distortions created by copyright dwarf the economic damage caused by other forms of trade protection.

There are many other mechanisms for supporting creative work, such as university funding (most professors are expected to publish in addition to their teaching), foundation funding, or direct public support. It is easy to design alternative mechanisms to expand this pool of non-copyright funding, such as the Artistic Freedom Voucher, which would give each person a small tax credit to support creative work of their choosing.

With the entertainment industry getting increasingly out of control, it is important that we start to develop better alternatives to copyright. We need to think of how we should support creative work in the 21st century and not let the entertainment industry drag us back into the 16th century.
Of course, it seems to me that the irony of Baker's approach is that it would encourage a return to 16th-century policy: artists and writers would be even more dependent upon elite patrons for support. We would have traded the Medicis for national foundations. Granted, there's always been a role for the wealthy patron in the arts (the Medicis sponsored some pretty nice stuff), and plenty of productive authors are now based out of universities. It's one thing to complain about the "trade protection" "damage" of copyright and arguing that it distorts the "market," but are vast, institutional structures going to be that much more responsive to the "market"? One would have to wonder what would be more "distorting": having to pay an author some percentage of a book's price as a result of his or her labor in producing this book or having authors fill out grant proposal after grant proposal to apply for funding from some institution (and having this funding be determined by a coterie of people)?
Baker, it seems to me, wants to trade the protections of free-market commerce for the
largesse of institutions. Even if we lay aside any ethical objections to the destruction of copyright in a society, his policy certainly raises some practical concerns about some of the implications of a dissolution of copyright.
Interestingly, Baker omits another way of raising revenue for creative work: advertising. Certainly, advertising helps fund a lot of magazines and newspapers, and I know a few blogs are able to pay the bills (at least partially) through ads.
(Not that I'm against "Open Source" work or anything like that [I'm not charging for this blog! (not that anyone would pay!--ed)]--but there is a difference between forced "Open Source" and that of the voluntary kind. And one can support forced "Open Source" policies even while acknowledging the drawbacks of these policies.)