The Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) got a lot of attention yesterday – especially the wikipedia blackout. Many outlets oppose the bill because they fear, rightfully, that it will promote censorship and stifle free speech and internet innovation. It seems protest and outrage got to enough congresspeople to keep them from supporting some of the worst aspects of SOPA, but the cornerstone of advocacy is support for strong intellectual property and copyright laws themselves.
Constitutionally, copyright power is designed “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Industry advocates and their allies consistently rely on a theoretical case that without strong intellectual property protection advances in science and art would be practically nonexistent and entertainers would all starve. It all sounds nice in theory, but the only thing nonexistent for this state of affairs is the evidence for it.
I’m sure printers of the Encyclopedia Britannica may have lost some revenue after the internet and wikipedia started offering information freely, but can anyone seriously claim that information is less available now? As an author of a free blog, maybe I just can’t understand. I suppose it’s possible that we’d descend into an artistic Dark Age if we greatly reduced intellectual property rights… but somehow we got by with Shakespeare, Mozart, and Da Vinci before copyright laws made innovation itself possible.
Matt Yglesias sensibly wonders what problem needs fixing?
There are plenty of books to read, things to watch, and music to listen to. Indeed, the American consumer has never been better-entertained than she is today. The same digital frontier that’s created the piracy pseudo-problem has created whole new companies and made it infinitely easier for small operations to distribute their products. Digital technology has reduced the price we pay for new works and made them cheaper to create. I can watch a feature film on my telephone.
Instead of tightening up IP laws we should be moving in the opposite direction. If we start to create a real problem, we can move back, but cutting into an industry’s profits by failing to provide them total monopolies shouldn’t be a concern for public policy. Only to the extent that lack of profits decisively cramps innovation do we need to interfere with the free market. Even still, copyright isn’t the only option; government, universities, and charity can fund the arts and science or we could modify the tax code to further promote art. I’m usually against more complications to the tax code, but the monopolies copyrights create distort efficiency far more than a tax credit.
In Dean Baker’s book, The End of Loser Liberalism, he argues for an”artistic freedom voucher:”
A refundable tax credit for a specific amount (e.g., $100) that individuals could contribute to whatever creative worker/organization they choose. The condition of getting this money would be that the recipient individuals/organizations would not be eligible to receive copyrights for some period of time (e.g., three years) after receiving the money. All the work they produce would be in the public domain so that it could be reproduced and circulated around the world.
Entertainers can still make money from concerts, merchandise, advertising, appearances and other creative endeavors so I don’t think we have to worry about Jay-Z ending up back on the streets if IP rights aren’t fully enforced. I know everyone fears that without strong copyright great artists like Angelina Jolie and Channing Tatum will go extinct once they’re unable to afford eating desserts made of real gold at award shows, but something in me guesses we’ll still have movie stars and we’ll still be able to watch movies.
*Without intellectual property protection I would have never wrote this blog post.