When you start questioning the copyright monopoly, many middlemen and other has-beens start acting offended – as if you have somehow questioned a natural birthright. Nothing is farther from the truth.
The copyright monopoly is not a natural right. It is a government-sanctioned private monopoly, granted under the assumption that no culture would get created if there’s not a profit motive behind it, and that this profit motive can only be realized in a monopolized setting.
Yet, when you question this assumption and this monopoly, some people react with unmitigated angry and fury – as though you have questioned their very right to life. This is puzzling, and it indicates a lack of understanding of what the monopoly is and why it exists.
(People who like liberal capitalism should balk at “goverment-sanctioned monopoly”. People who lean towards labor values should balk at “private monopoly”. Still, it’s factually true.)
If property rights and normal competition were applied in the fields of culture and knowledge, there would be no such thing as the copyright monopoly whatsoever. It would be like any other field of entrepreneurship. Compare it, for example, with how a professional chef needs to create new recipes and then can monetize them either by performing, by educating others, or by selling cookbooks, just to name a few methods. I use chefs as example on purpose here, as food recipes are explicitly not covered by the copyright monopoly – and yet, there are many cooks, chefs, and famous star chefs.
Some time in history (in 1709, specifically), publishers managed to convince legislators that no culture would get printed and distributed if the publishing guild couldn’t get the copyright monopoly reinstated, the lucrative monopoly that had previously been a censorship regime. Importantly, they didn’t argue that nothing would get created without a monopoly; they argued it wouldn’t get duplicated and distributed. Thus, fearing that no culture would be available for the population, legislators agreed to the monopoly on purely utilitarian grounds.
Later, this mutated into a purely utilitarian justification for this monopoly that limits normal property rights, competition, and trade mechanisms: “without the monopoly, little or no new culture would get created”. We see that all the time: “if you allow this monopoly to last for only 110 years instead of 120, how would the million-euro blockbuster movies get funded?” Putting aside the argument that no movies have a return-on-investment horizon of 100 years in the first place (and many actually make their investment back opening weekend, making the copyright monopoly completely unnecessary in the first place), this argument keeps coming back: “if there’s no monopoly, no culture will be created”.
Thus, any entrepreneur aspiring to sell culture by the copy has historically had two layers of customers, and keeps having two layers. The first layer is legislators, where they have to keep selling the idea that the greater public good is served by giving the culture entrepreneurs a monopoly that infringes on other people’s property rights (“or culture won’t be created at all”). The second layer of customers are the ones actually buying culture by the copy.
That’s why it’s so thoroughly surprising to see these entrepreneurs react with fury and anger at legislators who are actually their customers – even if just customers of an idea they keep entertaining – when those legislators question the existence and value of this monopoly, up to and including threatening in public to burn such politicians at the stake. The copyright monopoly is not a natural right, like property or life. It never was. It is a government-granted market-distorting privilege that limits property rights and limits trade.
If entrepreneurs in the cultural sector want to keep this distortive privilege, the utilitarian value of it needs to be re-evaluated constantly. It is usually a bad idea to threaten the people who ultimately get to decide if the monopoly remains, rather than attempting to keep selling the picture of it as something that serves the greater good.
Of course, we also know now that the original premise of the copyright monopoly is thoroughly false. People are creating more than ever, and despite the copyright monopoly, not because of it. More than two days of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. People create as much in 48 hours today as humankind had created in total before 2003. Granted, not all of it is blockbuster movies – but humankind’s favorite form of culture has always shifted with the times. We don’t watch opera or theater much any more, so perhaps there’s something very interesting around the corner that will replace blockbusters too?
In any case, the copyright monopoly is no kind of natural right, and people who react with fury and anger when it is questioned are severely misguided. They are reacting quite like religious fundamentalists. I don’t mean that in the sense of what we normally associate with a religion, I am merely pointing out that they are behaving in exactly the same patterns as religious fundamentalists are: with anger and hostility, every time their claims are called into question and scrutiny.
Just like with religious fanatic zealots, that disapproval of scrutiny may ultimately be their downfall – so may the light of a thousand suns shine on the disastrous market distortion that is the copyright monopoly.
About The Author
Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other week. He is the founder of the Swedish and first Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at falkvinge.net focuses on information policy.