That Republican copyright critique isn’t conservative: It’s economic

Nice to see that that that Republican memo proposing that copyright be considerably rethought has been getting a lot of coverage. And I’m particularly interested to read an upcoming book that will apparently make the conservative case for copyright reform (h/t Copyfight).

I am a bit worried about the whole labels thing, though. While the book, judging from the chapter titles, will almost certainly look at copyright through a conservative/libertarian lens, it’s maybe worth noting that the Republican memo, at least, is making an economic argument, not a partisan/conservative/libertarian one.

That’s actually what makes it so so significant: that a U.S. political party released (if only briefly) a document that essentially proposes shifting the copyright debate from the realm of interest-based politics to one in which we start to focus on its actual, measurable effects on society as a whole.

What makes it an economic proposal? Let’s consider the three myths it debunks.

First, it argues that the purpose is not to compensate the creator of the content, but to benefit society as a whole by encouraging the creation and dissemination of knowledge and culture. This should be totally uncontroversial to any economist. Private property is a social institution designed to benefit all of society, not just property owners. Same with copyright. When thinking about whether copyright (or any property regime) makes sense, we have to consider the overall societal benefit, not just the benefit to one group.

Second, it argues that copyright is not “free-market capitalism at work,” but rather a government-supported monopoly right granted to works upon creation. Again, no reputable economist would disagree with this. Every single economic justification of copyright is based on the idea that without this government-granted right you couldn’t have a market in the things covered by copyright, because they are so easily copied.

Third, it argues that “the current copyright legal regime” actually hinders innovation and productivity. This is an argument that appeals to evidence of what’s going on in the real world, which should be the bread and butter of any economic analysis of copyright.

There’s nothing in here that a liberal or Democrat couldn’t agree with. At all. This isn’t a zero-sum argument about the evils of raising taxes; it’s a recognition that the market in creative works is constructed by government, and that the current policy doesn’t seem to be meeting its overall objectives.

In their book, Against Intellectual Monopoly (it’s free – legal – download, kiddies, and a must-read for anyone interested in the economic intellectual-property debate), economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine compare the intellectual-property debate to that over free trade in the 19th century. That was another debate that initially was dominated by particular interests arguing for a policy (mercantilism) that benefitted them while hurting society as a whole. It was eventually debunked decisively by David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, and has been accepted by Democrats and Republicans alike.*

Point is, there’s nothing keeping these ideas from being adopted by liberals or conservatives. The real division here isn’t ideological; it’s between those who favour the current interest-based approach to policy and those who want to look at the evidence and consider how we can best regulate the market in creative works to benefit society as a whole.

* FTR, I’m aware of and sympathetic to the limitations of free trade and comparative in a world of unequal power, but I think the critique of mercantilism as an overall policy still stands.

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