World without copyright? Prepare for mind blowing

22 Nov

Without copyright protection, the world may never have known Jar Jar.

House Republicans in the United States last week released a report on copyright that was amazing in its understanding of the topic, but also mind-blowing. It was so forward-thinking, the party’s study committee had no choice but to retract it the very next day, likely because of pressure from frothing-mad copyright lobbyists.

But consider the doo-doo stirred. The report suggests some pretty incredible ideas, which are even more incredible given that they’re coming from politicians. As TechDirt noted, the report says current copyright law is anti-competitive and hurting innovation and consumers, so it’s therefore a sin against Capitalism. It goes so far as to suggest that entirely new industries aren’t happening because of the monopolies granted by copyright law.

The report then proposes a few concrete reforms, such as lowering the length of copyright, creating disincentives to renewing it, expanding fair-use principles and punishing false claims.

Whether or not anything will become of this withdrawn report is a big question. It’s exciting nevertheless because it suggests a sort of creative Singularity, or a future that is difficult to imagine because it’s completely alien to what we have all known. Taking its suggestions to their furthest conclusion, what would happen in a world without copyright?

Lobbyists and copyright lawyers would naturally argue that this would represent the apocalypse – that human creativity and innovation (assuming that copyright abolishment would also extend to patents) would cease to exist because people would have no incentive to create if their ideas didn’t get legal protection. That’s of course an absurd suggestion, if only because cavemen – who had no copyright laws that we know of – didn’t stop inventing tools or painting on cave walls. Creativity is as natural and strong a human instinct as breathing; nothing will stop it.

There’s little doubt current industries would be massively shaken up, but as the Republican report suggests, that may not be a bad thing because entirely new ones could arise. Individual creators would certainly be far more empowered – imagine if anyone was free to legally create and sell their own Star Wars movie? That definitely would result in a far more competitive market for such films, and we probably would have been spared the crime on humanity that was Jar Jar Binks.

The reality today is that anyone who wants to take a creative work without paying for it can do so. Current copyright efforts have tried to stem that, but going the other way may in fact be the better way to go. Rather than trying to stem the tide, why not go with the flow and see where it takes us?

Such an attitude would be consistent with our ideas about ownership in other respects. The success of online cloud media services such as Netflix and Spotify suggest that a growing number of people are not interested in owning movies and music, so long as they have access to them whenever and wherever they want. This makes sense for a lot of reasons: CDs and DVDs take up a lot of space, gather dust and cost a lot (relatively speaking). Why buy them and maintain them if we use them once in a blue moon?

I recently wrote a story about how this non-ownership rental model is also gaining currency with the devices we watch that content on. With gadgets evolving and improving so quickly, we don’t want to keep them for very long, which means we could be moving to a “cloud rental” model on actual hardware too. Add in the likelihood that we won’t own the fast-developing robot cars when they arrive and a clearer picture starts to emerge. In the future, we won’t own things because it won’t make sense to.

Why should ideas be any different?


Posted by on November 22, 2012 in copyright


14 responses to “World without copyright? Prepare for mind blowing

  1. russellmcormond

    November 22, 2012 at 11:29 am

    The well written GOP report did not suggest Copyright should be abolished.

    It stated the facts, which is that Copyright is a government granted monopoly that is only narrowly justifiable for a well defined public policy purpose, and that the success/failure of this policy should be measured against the well established harm of monopolies and that defined purpose. It did go on to say that the length/breadth of the current monopoly is unjustifiable, but that isn’t the same as saying that a lower length/breadth wouldn’t be justifiable.

    I strongly believe some monopoly is required as an incentive, so the question should be about whether to abolish but how much monopoly is needed compared to the harm to the market caused by any monopoly.

    While the report didn’t get into it, the answer to the question of how much monopoly is required is fairly market specific. The monopoly needed for big-budget films and television is very different than the much smaller monopoly required to incentivise infrastructure software (IE: Operating systems, network stacks, etc). But we all must get past the insanity of thinking of Copyright as a property on ideas to recognizing it as a big-government monopoly that should never be stronger than absolutely necessary to achieve a well defined public policy goal.

    • petenowak2000

      November 22, 2012 at 11:43 am

      The report didn’t explicitly suggest that copyright should be abolished, but by saying that copyright is a monopolistic force that is holding innovation back, the implicit suggestion is there. Ultimately, what’s the difference between a little bit of monopoly and a lot?

      I know you’re a big fan of owner rights, but what I’m suggesting is that individual ownership is making less sense in a growing number of respects. This concept of idea ownership is very, very entrenched since we’ve had it for a long, long time. The other side of it – a creative free-for-all – has never been properly explored, so it can’t be said conclusively that it wouldn’t work.

      • russellmcormond

        November 22, 2012 at 12:35 pm

        There is a massive difference between a little bit of monopoly and a lot — government granted monopolies are to creativity and innovation like water is to humans: too little and you dehydrate and die, too much and you drown and die.

        I believe we are increasingly recognizing we are currently drowning, and the “ideas are property” extremists are claiming that throwing more water at us will solve the problem. You then have the other extreme, which didn’t include the GOP report, which suggests abolishment. I consider abolishment to be another word for death by dehydration.

        Why must we choose between death and death — there really is a healthy 3’rd option!

        I’m not as much a fan of “owners rights” as I am a fan of honesty, something nearly entirely lacking from the “copyright” and semi-related DRM/TPM debate.

        If you are renting something, which is what the honest analysis of what (for example) Apple wants to do with their devices, then that is what the legal arrangement should clarify. Claiming it is a “sale” while the previous owner retains ownership rights is dishonest, and should be clearly illegal.

        I agree with your suggestion that some people will choose to rent rather than own computing hardware/software just as some choose to rent rather than own homes. I even agree that over time ownership won’t be as large a percentage as it is today.

        The problem with the current law is that people are *not* given a choice to own/rent because bad laws are legally protecting bad actors ability *lie* to people about the nature of the transaction.

        DRM = Dishonest Relationship Misinformation

        Looked at it outside the reality distortion field, it is already the case that the vast majority of people who are “copyright holders” (a type of owner — of the sell-able monopoly, not the idea) would gladly waive their copyright-related rights if they even knew they had them. The vast majority of copyright holders are amateurs not interested in being owners.

        Just because the vast majority of copyright holders of the vast majority of creativity would waive such a right doesn’t suggest abolishing is appropriate either, as I believe there is some creativity in specific domains that need market interventions to provide incentives. Having choices is key..

      • Chad English

        November 22, 2012 at 10:55 pm

        I have to agree with Russell on this one. Sure, people will create without IP law, but why would they go through the cost and expense of producing and promoting it? It’s not just the end users that are the problem. It is the businesses that will just take it and make loads of money off of your work and lock you out.

        Why would the cloud services pay you anything? Why not just take it and rent it out themselves? It becomes a world where the best distributer makes all the money and crwstors get very little.

        There are many better reforms. Shorten the length significantly, perhaps 14 years. Make it only automatic for the first year and require registration after that for a small fee, say $1. Make a standard license and/or fees, like Creative Commons, and stricter ones cost more in registration fees. Limit monopoly restrictions, such as taking away the right to deny usage via mandatory fees like radio has.

        Perhaps even create a digital database of all registered/restricted works which requires creators to upload a digital copy, for instance, which is paid for by both small registration fees of creators and by allowing access of businesses to sell or make use of the content at the standard fees. A fully restricted copyright could still be allowed, but that would be an expensive right to purchase.

        I’m this way, creators must pay for their rights. If they don’t think it is worth protecting for even $1, it’s no longer of substantial value to them and now the public should benefit as per the bargain of IP. If they think it is worth a lot, they pay a much larger protection fee. It marketizes the monopoly rights themselves.

        There are other ways of doing it, but I don’t see how abandoning completely is of value. Something about babies and bathwater comes to mind.

      • bhaggart

        November 26, 2012 at 9:30 am

        Sorry to jump in on a week-old thread, but the following just caught my attention:

        Chad English wrote: “Sure, people will create without IP law, but why would they go through the cost and expense of producing and promoting it?”

        This is an economics question. Economists Michele Boldrin and David K Levine argue in Against Intellectual Monopoly ( — free [legit] book!) that creators would still have the ability to profit from creation even in the absence of copyright. There are other ways to make money from art than the sale of copies.

        This isn’t to say that artists would be better off without copyright, only that the way the market worked would be different. Most likely some would be better off; some would be worse off. Some things that get created today would probably become rarer, while new forms of creation would come into existence.

        In his recent (fantastic) book How Music Works, David Byrne makes this point with respect to sampling licensing fees. These high fees mean that it would be way too expensive to create a masterpiece like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique today. However, these fees didn’t stamp out creativity: Artists responded by creating their own beats, which they now sell on sites like Beatport. So the rules governing the music market led to both a loss of one type of creation but also the birth of another. Are we better or worse off because of this change? It’s in the ear of the listener.

        But creation, for fun and profit, would continue because creativity is shaped by market rules; it isn’t driven by them.

        (Modified version of this has been crossposted to my blog: Apologies for self-promotion.)

  2. Marc Venot

    November 22, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    Maybe you can present 3D graphics of the state of copyright laws in Canada and what would it be if this proposal is accepted?

  3. Stephan Wehner (@stephanwehner)

    November 22, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Pertinent song, “Blow your mind”.

  4. plerudulier

    November 22, 2012 at 3:24 pm

  5. Larry Wilson

    November 23, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    “As TechDirt noted, the report says current copyright law is anti-competitive and hurting innovation and consumers, so it’s therefore a sin against Capitalism.”
    People keep confusing Capitalism and Free Market.
    Capitalism is about Capital: Get it, keep it, and continually move toward monopoly.
    Free Market is about a competitive market that avoids oligarchy and monopoly.
    Obviously, the current excessive copyright law is right in line with Capitalism: It enhances the opportunities toward monopoly (innovation threatens monopolies and oligarchies).
    However, the current copyright law interferes dramatically with the Free Market in that it prevents competitors from using an idea and improving on it without the danger of prohibitive lawsuits.

  6. Urban Choreography

    November 27, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Reblogged this on Urban Choreography and commented:
    To change the world – new actor-worlds have to come into being – the rub is that existing actor-worlds resist the changes – what else is new here?

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