Chad Perrin: SOB

28 June 2007

responses to objections to some statements on copyright law

Filed under: Liberty — apotheon @ 11:12

The following is in answer to the points brought up by reader SLR in answer to my previous post, “a quick primer on theft and copyright”. I only separated this from the collection of comments there and chose to make a new post of it because it grew so long and, I think, is worth presenting more visibly — if only because it addresses reasonable questions directed at my statements, coming from the perspective of long familiarity and even comfort with our current system of copyright law. In other words, I think these are ideas and implications in need of answer.

I’ve reordered things a touch to make my points in what I hope is a more effective manner.

Thanks to a little cutie called “economy of scale,” music copyrights are probably worth more to a copyright accumulating corporation than they are to the innovator.

Economies of scale in the music industry are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, thanks in large part to the growing prevalence of the Internet and the greater natural distributability of market forces therein. It’s all well and good, then, to make the argument that copyright had its time, and was more valuable than it is now, to the music industry — but that assumes that without copyright all else would have been equal. I think it more likely that there would have been greater innovation in matters tangential to the actual production of music itself, as musicians desired greater economic value from their works. How much sooner might we have had the technological equivalent of the CD burner — so cheap to own and use that it almost makes a music distribution channel of anyone with a few thousand dollars in his pocket — if musicians actually needed it to reach a wide audience? What of the advancement of communications networks? How about business model innovations? Artificial scarcity imposes opportunity costs as well as the apparent benefits many believe justify it in the case of copyright, as it eliminates motivation for improving on the means of gaining economic benefit from musical works. At worst for the argument against copyright, that pendulum swings both ways.

The innovators need to start demanding that the copyright accumulators pay what the rights are worth.

That strikes me as effectively impossible. The only way to break the stranglehold the record labels have on conditions of copyright ownership in the record industry is to break the dependence upon them — which means not demanding value for value, but finding a way to jettison the record labels as they currently exist from the business of music distribution entirely. So much for economies of scale.

From my PoV, the likely fraudsters are the agents who say, “This is a standard contract” (true, beside the point) under the guise of and under the professional obligation to seek good contracts for the artists. I wonder if it’s possible to apply the pressures of “fiduciary responsibility” to an agent.

The fact that an agent may also be culpable in no way excuses the record industry corporations. The more people you get involved in an act of fraud, the more people are to blame, typically — and the fact that more people are to blame in no way diffuses the blame or reduces it in any instance. Unethicality is a bottomless well of which anyone may sip, with none the less refreshed for the fact that anyone else partakes.

Record labels don’t just provide effectively unreadable contracts: they provide contracts deliberately designed to take as much from the artist as possible while giving as little back as possible. There’s a point beyond which one is no longer “just trying to get a good deal”, and that’s the point beyond which one gives an impression that rewards will be granted that will not, if one gets one’s way, ever be available. Promising the world and delivering a printout from Google Earth is hardly honest dealing, and the fact it’s all in the contract is hardly justification for those who don’t understand what they’re getting into or have already gotten into it and feel they have no other option than to take whatever scraps they’re offered — regardless of whether an agent gives it the nod. That just makes the agent complicit. It doesn’t hand off the blame for the moral equivalent of debtor’s prison without the implied initial debt.

That aside, the wickedness of the record label doesn’t change the fact that they have been assigned copyrights, or publishing privileges (usually the former, because of the misery of music-industry contracts). I don’t think “stealing” is the right word for what happens when somebody ignores a copyright, but… ignoring the copyright owners copyrights is wordy. (ItCOC?)

I was a touch sloppy in how I referred to the artist as being “robbed” by the record label. I do not mean that (s)he is literally the victim of theft. It was an ironic point — that theft actually does not occur and, even if it did, the record label is the only one actually getting something valuable from the artist effectively at gunpoint. I suppose it’s kind of a dirty rhetorical trick: point out that the emotional investment in the idea that the artist is the victim of “theft” at the consumer’s hand is incorrect no matter how you look at it, with the intention of putting the reader in a position to stop thinking about that aspect of it and start thinking about the matter of whether theft has occurred at all.

It sounds totally disgusting to say it, but giving money to the record label helps to buy your artist better treatment from the label. Is that the way it should be? Probably not…

Not only does that not strike me as “the way it should be”, but it also is only true in a vacuum — and we all know nothing truly exists in a vacuum (at least within our range of experience). Paying the label only provably buys the artist better treatment in comparison with other artists. There are arguments as strong for the notion that even the artists who generate the most revenue are no objectively better off than the most valuable artists might be without the record labels at all.

So, to get down to my personal stance, I believe that copyrights do, generally (which is to say, not necessarily as they are now), have a positive effect on innovation, because without copyrights, innovation is an economic public good where the whole world is “the public.”

One of the problems with the “public good” (and that’s a perfectly valid economic term in this context, so there’s really no need to explain it) argument here is that it assumes copyright law ultimately leads to greater public accessibility to innovative works. Completely aside from the possibility that the pure, unadulterated motivation to create may be improved by copyright law (which I find wholly without supporting evidence — it’s an intuitive argument, not a logical one, largely debunked by the successes of open source software development and pre-copyright history), there’s also the problem that it is assumed that once created these copyright-motivated works then contribute more value to the general pool than would otherwise exist. This is an obvious assumption, but not necessarily an accurate one: copyright law, in fact, specifically limits distributability, as its entire motivational justification is dependent upon a state of artificial scarcity, and introduces a greater opportunity for force to be employed to prevent the potential immortality of original works.

Furthermore, reducing the span of copyright may also have the unintended consequence of decreasing economic motivation for creating certain types of original works: the environment of artificial scarcity fostered by copyright would then be optimized for works that are most valuable when acquired rapidly, which seems to me to imply technical application and secondary economic benefit. For copyright measured in a period of five years, I could imagine the fiction publishing industry all but drying up as publishers focus their efforts on works that go “stale” such as programming texts. Granted, this would bring the situation closer to a complete lack of copyright law for works of fiction in some regards, as the economic motivators would be more structurally similar to conditions of a lack of coercive power in distribution privilege, but in contrast and competition with other, more lucrative writing markets it may suffer more than it would in a copyright-less world — and, to the extent it didn’t, that would only debunk the entire economic argument for copyright motivating greater innovation.

Finally, nothing in the economic motivation argument in any way suggests it is ethical to impose artificial scarcity on a “product” that exists wholly within the mind, that can only be regulated in the form of its representation — and if it could actually be regulated in its (nontangible) substance would introduce far more troubling ethical aspects to the entire set of circumstances. Do you really want copyright law to regulate the manner in which you derive benefit from reading a book, to in effect regulate the contents of your mind, the processes of your brain’s operation? That, unfortunately, is the final consequence of copyright law in the face of inevitable technological advancement.

When in doubt, let economic principles apply naturally — distorting them with the externalities of such unnatural impositions as artificial scarcity is just asking for trouble.

I received the Thinking Blogger Award. Your turn.

Filed under: Cognition,Metalog — apotheon @ 02:20

Thinking Blogger Award badge It’s a good thing when I get handed an award for making my readers think by someone whose writing makes me think. At least, I think it’s a good thing. You might think it’s bad, if you’re of the opinion my ego is already overinflated. Thanks, Sterling, for the compliment. For those who aren’t aware, by the way, Sterling was my first (and so far only) guest blogger, and he did a fantastic job.

It’s also nice to get tagged with the Thinking Blogger Award before this pyramid scheme gets anywhere near critical mass. There will come a day when more regular writers of weblogs have them than don’t, I suspect, but at the moment I think most people in the so-called “blogosphere” aren’t even aware it exists. At the moment, people who actually say thoughtful things are still far more likely to get tagged, from what I’ve seen.

As Sterling suggested, following on the footsteps of the originator of the award, the point of being a Thinking Blogger Award recipient seems to be the one makes others thinking by being thoughtful oneself, and sharing one’s insights and questions with others. I know I do a lot of thinking, and sharing of those thoughts, but it’s always nice to know that others are noticing and being inspired by what I’ve said. I’m going to quote Sterling’s comment about me, because of the five people to whom he bestowed the award, I think I got the most complimentary mention. At least, of the five reasons stated for bestowing the Thinking Blogger Award, the one he offered for me is the one I’d find most flattering:

Whether it’s about programming, security, philosophy, or politics — each of Chad’s posts will give you at least one perspective you hadn’t thought of before.

I mean . . . damn. A compliment like that is some pretty heady stuff. Of course, assuming it’s true, I think it assumes that you actually consider what I have to say, even when it strikes you as counterintuitive (which much of it probably does for most people). That’s really the best material, though, in my opinion — the seemingly counterintuitive insights — and that’s why I share those thoughts. That actually makes me think of more to say on the subject of how I got to the point of writing the stuff I do here at SOB, but I think I’ll save that for another time. (edit: Apparently, I already did comment in SOB on the subject of how I got to this point — not just once, but twice.)

Enough about me. Let’s talk about what I think of you. It’s time for me to pick out five weblog writers on whom to bestow the Thinking Blogger Award. Without further ado, here’s a list of five “bloggers who make me think”, chosen from among those you probably don’t know I read, in alphabetical order (discounting “the”):

  • The Agitator: Penned by opinion columnist, frequent expert witness in Congressional hearings, and rough-and-tumble sort of libertarian thinker Radley Balko, the man has a talent for bringing previously ignored contradictions in public policy to the reader’s attention and stripping away obfuscation and irrelevancy to get to the heart of the matter. If you’re a corrupt government bureaucrat, you’ll definitely want to try to fly under his radar.
  • Algo Blog: A Silicon Valley algorithms expert has decided to share his thoughts about algorithms with the world. It not only hones one’s programming skills to think through interesting algorithm puzzles, but helps to sharpen the wit in regards to all of life’s problems. It helps that he really knows his shit stuff (or so it seems thus far), and is good at explaining it in clear terms (as long as you know some programming). It may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.
  • Barely a Blog: I find that Thibor Machan is a well-reasoned, well-written libertarian thinker, and I have a copy of his essay collection Liberty & Culture on my shelf — but he has nothing on Ilana Mercer, author of “Barely a Blog”. She is the single most deep-thinking, thoroughly reasoned libertarian writer of our time, in my experience (except me, of course). In fact, though I had managed to entirely miss that particular article until only yesterday, I discovered that she not only seems to hold the same opinions as I do about copyright and patent law (a rare thing indeed, in my experience, among people who didn’t get the ideas from me), but wrote about it two years before I even arrived at the same conclusions. Smart lady.
    (edit: For the moment, the RSS feed link at Barely A Blog is broken. The correct URL for syndication is here.)
  • Ideas: An excellent choice of title, “Ideas” is full of exactly that: ideas. David Friedman, economist son of that Friedman, is a well-regarded author and a guy with a propensity for applying principles of economics to all kinds of interesting, often surprising, subjects — like the market for marriage in a future where brain chemistry is understood well enough to be tailored at will by prescription. Yes, really, he wrote about that in “Ideas”. Some of what he says really comes out of left field, and is generally in less-poor taste than my recent ponderings on the notion of infanticide as an ethically acceptable form of birth control. It was a tough choice, by the way, between this icon of anarcho-capitalist culture and small business owner Warren Meyer, but in the end the originality of Friedman’s application of economic theory to wide-ranging subject matter won out.
  • Ratha: Ratha Grimes is the woman who introduced me to what was, to me, a revolutionary new way of thinking about copyright and patent law. I was already halfway there, but I don’t know how long it would have taken me to arrive at these conclusions on my own. Thanks to her, I didn’t need to: she metaphorically smacked me upside the head with a cluestick, and introduced an idea that I just never really considered before. She also introduced me to Debian as the obvious best Linux distribution and a number of other interesting and refreshing notions. She moved out of Florida a while before I did, and we don’t talk much these days — busy lives in different states — but simply observing from afar her continual experimentation with self-development and introspection provides a breath of fresh air for an active mind.

Warren Meyer, by the way, wasn’t the only close call. I had about six more on my list as finalists, and another half-dozen or so who nearly made it to the second-to-last cut. Life’s too short to spend too much time reading stuff that doesn’t make you think, and I spend a lot of time reading, so I hunt down a lot of good writers and occasionally have to cut people out of the list that are probably more interesting and thought-provoking than many people ever encounter just because the list gets too long. Thinking is addictive, you know — and it’s my favorite drug.

So . . . for the five of you (assuming you ever notice you were “tagged” by me) on whom I’ve bestowed the Thinking Blogger Award, here are the rules for participation:

  1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.
  2. Link to the original Thinking Blogger Award post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the award tradition. It might be a good idea to link to this post, too, as validation of your legitimate receipt of the award.
  3. Optional: Proudly display the Thinking Blogger Award with a link to the post that you wrote (TBA badge image available in silver and gold).

(edit: If you want to contribute to my ego-inflation, you might consider swinging by The Z List to upvote me. Unfortunately, you have to register and log in to do so — but that makes a certain amount of sense for purposes of validation. Also unfortunately, the process of registering and logging in was a little less than intuitive when I signed up for the first time, but I’m confident my readers are smart enough to manage.)

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License