I haven’t forgotten about the “Unbalanced” series! Next on the list is a post about copyright, and the lack thereof.
The Radical Notion
The world would be better off–in economy, culture, and law–if most forms of what some call “intellectual property” were abolished. No copyright, no patents. (Trademarks could stick around; more on that in a bit.) If somebody created a work of art, in prose or painting or music or whatever, it’d be legal to copy and record and share that around, remix and adapt it, even sell those copies or adaptations. No license or permission required. Reverse engineering a device or drug and selling your own production of it would be legit. That’d be a big part of my utopia world, a fantastic vibrant place to live!
The Usual Objections
“But how would artists/programmers/etc. ever make money? You can’t compete with free.” You totally can. Successful businesses today already do! Competition is not only about having the best price; you can win on better service, on easier access to your product, better marketing, or any other measure you care to name. A textbook example: iTunes. People didn’t all have changes of heart about the ethics of bootleg music when iTunes hit the scene. You can still find the latest Gagas and Nickelbacks for free from your friendly neighborhood Pirate Bay. Yet the service keeps making money hand-over-fist, because it’s easier to use and more reliable than pirate offerings, while offering prices that feel fair. Other examples abound: Humble Indie Bundles, free and open software like Linux distros, and more. The business models are out there: monopoly control of copies is not the only way. Heck, in a sense, many of these industries have always competed with free: why go to the movies, when there are innumerable other entertainments you can engage in for no cost in your own home or backyard?
“So you’d be okay with me taking your writing and slapping my name on it, right?” No! I’m talking about doing away with the concept of infringement, not plagiarism, fraud, or counterfeiting. Even today’s most flagrant infringers aren’t sharing Game of Thrones around claiming they made it. It’s a very different concept. Here’s where I’m okay with things like trademarks: it’s of benefit to both businesses and the public to have a true representation of who produced what I’m buying, where my money goes when I decide to make a purchase. Even if tomorrow it were legal for a backyard kitbasher to sell replica iPads, the consumer deserves to know it’s not Apple selling the thing. So if I’m brand-loyal to Apple and want to see my money flow to them, I know which thing to buy; if it comes to light that the kitbasher cuts corners and their iPad is of shoddy manufacture, it’s that producer who gets the bad rep and not Apple. I’m on board with that kind of protection. (That said, caution is necessary when establishing legal penalties for such things. In today’s age of instant fact-checking and crowd reviews, social pressures can quash fakes and knockoffs more efficiently than lawsuits.)
“Without IP protection, you take away the incentives to make new big-budget movies/do expensive drug research/etc. We’d never see Spider-Man Reboot III Part 8 or cure cancer.” Man, yeah, it’s a good thing we had intellectual property laws back in the day, or we’d never have invented the wheel or indoor plumbing, amirite? …That’s a flip answer, but the point is thus: where there is a need and bright minds to seek answers for it, creativity will happen. It’d be tricky to find alternatives to the current model for some of these things, particularly in pharmaceuticals–prizes and the like, perhaps?–but it’s not an insurmountable problem.
How I’m Not Really So Out There As All That
I try not to be a naive idealist. A transition to a post-IP world would not be an easy one. There’d be upheaval; some businesses, maybe even things we consider to be whole industries, would fail. Some people would lose jobs or give up on their dreams, find themselves unable to make money doing what they want in the way they want to. It’d take a little while before the innovations, the growth, the new breakthroughs possible under such a “utopian” world would come to be. But thing is, that’s already happening–the old, monopolistic, gatekeeper-style, litigation-minded behemoths are becoming more and more irrelevant, every day. The question is how long we’ll allow them to hold progress back. More, stricter laws, with harsher punishments, to keep the old ways afloat a few more years? The diminishing returns already kicked in long ago.
But really, total abolition isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. There’s no political will to it, the desire not quite wide or deep enough in the public consciousness to make it feasible. Even Rick Falkvinge of Pirate Party fame advocates for substantial but incomplete moves, like legalization of noncommercial file sharing (including careful definition of what “commercial” is) and reduction of commercial copyright terms to a few years. And that’d be fantastic in my book! No need to hold out for the moon when the world will do.
In the meantime, I do small things and keep it cool. I don’t advocate that anyone break the law. I release my own work under permissive licenses. I buy from sites that don’t use DRM. I talk up fantastic new-business-model platforms like Kickstarter. I boost the signal on articles that explain the economics at work. That kind of thing–working, bit by bit, to bring about the world I want to see!