Blogs & Comment

Does capitalism really need copyright laws?

In the future, we won’t own things because it won’t make sense. Why should ideas be any different?

(Photo: John Foxx/Getty)

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Whether or not anything will become of this withdrawn report is a big question.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.

Why should ideas be any different?