COPYRIGHT. Can you think of anything more boring, more old-school, more passé? Surely it stands in the way of people just helping themselves to the things they find online? Its defenders are old businesses who want to use it to cheat, because they can’t compete their way to online success. But before we all rush off to the brave new world where everything is free, let’s take a look at another similarly artificial, legally conjured, economic intervention: money.
Money has more than a passing resemblance to copyright. It is a legal construct rather than a natural phenomenon. It works through restrictions and limitations, mainly of supply, and by doing so creates wealth and hugely complex markets of every kind.
Money depends on legally created restrictions and ownership rights. You can’t legally get more money just by copying it, even if it’s technically simple. If you get caught trying, you go to jail. Everyone wants more of it, but money is relatively hard to obtain. Demand outstrips supply. Despite this we have become steadily wealthier over time, and because people can choose what to do with their money its uses have become ever more diverse and ingenious.
Copyright worked for 300 years to ensure that the same happened in the creative field, as a casual glance at the countless books, TV channels, newspapers, magazines, records and other media can confirm. But now we’re told that because copying is easy, it’s inevitable, and the price paid by individual creators and companies is outweighed by the benefit to society overall.
That’s nonsense. You don’t need to be a particularly sophisticated economist to know that if everyone could have unlimited amounts of money then it would all be worthless, and you don’t need vast amounts of imagination to see how dramatically that would affect our society. The idea of it is just absurd.
Yet when it comes to copyright we are asked to believe that because the technology for copying exists, attempts to regulate or control it are futile. Credulous legislators seem to be seduced by the idea that we are creating a great new digital economy in which creators’ rights are pretty unimportant.
The last decade or so of a largely copyright-free internet has generated huge wealth, for sure. But a few, lucky, mostly American, billionaires have been the big winners in the content game. Creators, and those who invest in them, have found meagre rewards even when they reach enormous new audiences.
It is time to call a halt. And there are signs globally that the creative industries have stopped apologising for copyright and started fighting back – whether in the courts against exploitative businesses, as the Newspaper Licensing Agency has done, or via the launch of new copyright compliant services, such as the streaming of music and e-books which encourages consumers to act legally.
Dominic Young is an entrepreneur, former chairman of the Newspaper Licensing Agency and blogs at copyrightblog.co.uk