Straight Talk About Copyrights

The striggle for information freedom 

The theory that we've all been taught is that copyrights are "intellectual property" rights that protect creators, and give them an incentive to make creative works that provide personal and public benefit.  The truth is that property rights exist to allocate finite resources, not to artificially choke supply for the sake of incentive (or to reward labor).  Rather than protection, or a free market property, copyrights are more like a regulation that micromanages how people can use information.  In practice, they are dangerous to rely on and lock out more opportunity then they promote.

History has shown that just protection of property rights leads to strong incentives, but coercion of incentive does not necessarily lead to just property rights.  Simply because an institution calls something a property right, doesn't mean that it is.  If, for example, an industry used the government to artificially restrict the natural supply of food and called shares of that monopoly a "property right", it would be very easy to see how the artificial distortion of markets would not only cause opportunity loss, but harm to society.   Copyrights are a way for some industries to use government to artificially restrict the natural supply of information and force the market to center around information control rather than service value.  That causes opportunity loss, harm to society, and a burden of enforcement that is too heavy to bear in the information age. 

Normally copyright concerns would not be so eminent as they have been effectively used for hundreds of years without failure.  However, things are different this time and faith in the copyright system is rather dangerous.  Just as the industrial revolution forced the commoditisation of the labor market and the ugly death of the plantation system.  The information age is forcing the commoditisation of information and the ugly death of the copyright system.  It is not a coincidence that the speculative stock market Panic of 1857 , regarding industrial technology is very similar to the speculative stock market crash in 2001 regarding information technology. It is not a coincidence that the slavery issue created a raging debate about artificial "property rights" as copyrights have today.  It is not a coincidence the disproportional prosperity of the plantation system then and the disproportional prosperity of the copyright industries today (That is, unless one thinks hollywood is undervalued).  Things like the harsh punishments for merely teaching a person of color to read, vs copyright crimes having punishments worse than rape today. These are all symptoms of drastically changing markets and entrenched dying industries trying to prevent change.  As for those industries that thought that the entire purpose and meaning of the industrial revolution was to leverage inventions like the cotton-gin to expand their plantations for unlimited growth and profit - they were deadly wrong in spite of all the money and intellect behind them.  Those industries today whom believe that the entire purpose and meaning of the information age is to leverage inventions like the Internet to expand the influence of copyright controls for vast growth and profit are similarly disillusioned.

Over the next several years, the copyright system will not only be attacked, it will not likely survive.  All industries that center on them will change or die a protracted death, and all institutions that rely on a proprietary information infrastructure will be stuck in the mud as they suffer numerous opportunity costs.  The information age is doing for information services what the industrial revolution did for production.  However, the copyright system doesn't center around the supply and demand of service, but an artificial supply restrictions on information that services bring about.  Over the coming years as information becomes commoditized and service value becomes more important than the content value, there will be trillions of dollars worth of pressure to kill the copyright system.  In fact, it's already starting.  Publishers, newspapers, and advertisers are under siege from Google, Hollywood is under siege from p2p networks, and Microsoft is under siege from free and open source software like Linux.  In fact, MS, AOL, and Yahoo were so blinded by content strategies that Google formed a multi billion dollar empire right under their nose.  Linux and Apache seized a majority of the web server space with 1/1000th the backing that Microsoft had.  This was not luck, but a fundamental market shift forcing change.

So in truth, copyrights are a false "incentive"; they are not "property", but anti free market; they are not "protection", but instead will bear heavy on organizations that use proprietary technology as lost opportunity costs.  Organizations that rely on copyright revenue will find out how dangerous they are as copyrights die an ugly and protracted death.  Copyrights are incompatible with information age paradigms, and there will be trillions of dollars worth of pressure to kill them.  Even though many IT companies are isolated from harm because their revenue streams do not center around control over content distribution.  Any company that wishes to be excel in the information age needs to treat the free to copy nature of information as a end game benefit and not a persistent threat.

Dec 2005.