Should copyright laws exist at all?
Whenever politicians get especially excited in naming a piece of legislation, it’s a pretty safe bet that the bill will do the opposite of whatever the name says.
With a bill as gratuitously titled as the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act” (otherwise known as PIPA), you can be certain that the only “economic creativity” being protected here is that of the special interests pushing the bill.
In this case, the special interests behind PIPA, and the equally disturbing “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA), are mostly media and entertainment industry giants like the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.
But contrary to the industry claims, these bills do nothing to protect artists and creators like me and actually make it harder for us to innovate and generate new works.
I’ve spent my entire adult life in the media and entertainment industries — as a composer and musician, as a writer and as a video producer. Yet every year as I see more and more examples of cronyism where big media companies work with politicians to squash small producers and consumer freedoms, I grow increasingly skeptical of the very idea of “intellectual property.”
Copyright and patent protections and anti-piracy laws are always couched in language of property rights and fighting “theft.” As a libertarian working in the field of libertarian activism, it’s probably fair to say that no one believes in private property rights more than I do. But there are two big problems with this framework when applied to IP.
First, copying isn’t theft.
If I steal your bicycle, the harm done to you is not that I now have a bicycle to ride, but that you don’t and all the time you took working to earn money to acquire that bicycle is gone too. But if I copy your bicycle, we both have something to ride.
In economic terms, copying increases the supply of a good that’s available to consumers whereas theft is only redistributive. That’s a big distinction conveniently glossed over by the IP laws’ supporters, who generally want you to believe that copying an MP3 and stealing a CD are the same thing.
The second major problem is that you can’t actually “own” an idea unless it stays in your head.
The minute you share an idea with anyone, it’s no longer “yours” in any meaningful sense. Ideas replicate, mutate and evolve when they’re shared from one person to the next. This is what Matt Ridley (author of “The Rational Optimist”) calls “ideas having sex,” and this is exactly what has taken human culture and material wealth out of the Stone Age and produced the amazing standards of living we all enjoy today. New ideas in art, music, science and technology — or in any other field — don’t come fully formed out of nothing; they’re incrementally built on the shoulders of previous inventors and creators.
So when you try to stop people from sharing ideas (which is exactly what SOPA and PIPA would do), you’re putting a damper on the spontaneously ordered innovation that will make our lives even better in the future.
You’re also setting up incentives for some creators to spend more time and money suing people ($31 billion a year, according to Stephan Kinsella) than they spend producing better-quality products. In this way IP law stifles creativity and keeps potential innovators chained down.
If you want an example of this, go check out “Beauty and the Beast in 3D,” which is in theaters now.
Sean W. Malone produces media for a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C. and for his own company, CitizenA Media. All opinions expressed are his own.