Let's Fix the Highway System, Too

Let's Fix the Highway System, Too


Copyright is contact between the creator of a copyrightable work and society at large. Society agrees to give the creator the right to make a profit from the copyrightable work for a given period of time, after which the copyright expires and the work becomes accessible or owned by the public. In exchange for a period of exclusivity, everybody eventually benefits.

Thomas Jefferson thought a good time period for copyright was four (4) years. It’s now the life of the creator plus something like 70 years. In other words, almost nothing created today will be accessible to the public during your lifetime. I wrote several years ago, in a post I can no longer locate, that if nothing else, this was a picture perfect example of both the Democrats and Republicans giving a big middle finger to America’s working class. This still stands, in my mind, as the first big “we’re not even trying to hide it” example that our Congress had been bought.

By a mouse.

The Internet was not written with the copyright holder in mind. It was written to freely share ideas and information.

Copyrighted material has found its way onto the Internet.

We’re now being asked to find ways to ensure that the Internet is not used to assist in the dissemination of copyrighted works. The nasty or-else is that we’ll end up with something like SOPA or PIPA. As though that’ll fix anything.

Define The Problem

There are several problems with President Obama’s call to arms.

First, is it that important? The industries that have built their livelihood around copyright quite naturally blow the harm way out of proportion. It’s in their best interest to make the harm appear as large as possible. There’s simply no good metric for measuring the damage and each side claims it’s own numbers. One number is just as valid as the other. So pick $0 damage or $50 Gazillion. Either way, you’re right and you’re wrong. Until we can measure the effect, how can we know there’s a problem?

If you cannot prove there is a problem, then it’s beholden upon a sane society to proceed as if there is no problem. Prove it or shut up. But prove it openly and demonstrably. Otherwise, it does not constitute proof.

Second, despite their cries of piracy leaving them destitute, the entertainment industries continue to post record profits. See also this article for an example of a publisher simply not meeting demand which is still spun as a piracy problem. And let’s not forget The Dark Knight, which was both the most pirated and biggest grossing movie of 1998. That’s a jaw-dropper.

Third, the entertainment industry seems to only want to live in the pre-digital age. They have shown no interest in selling the customer what the customer wants. They want DRM. They want limited enjoyment times. They want to control the distribution channel from start to finish and the customer be damned. That’s not good business. And neither the technical crowd nor government should be supporting this attitude. Would you buy a bag of chips if you could only eat them between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00? If they could only be eaten by you? Or if they could only be enjoyed by a party of less than 7? (Otherwise, you’ll need to buy the Party of 10+ package.)

Fourth, while the RIAA would have us believe that piracy is killing music, that’s simply a lie. And they know it. And they don’t care. The Internet is overflowing with music today. More people are recording and publishing more music than at any other time in history. And it’s freely available all over the Internet. Now, I’ll agree that technology is hurting, and maybe even killing, the historical “we must control the distribution channel” business model represented by the RIAA. Technology is definitely putting the big hurt on “pay the artist nothing” record contracts. It’s killing the million dollar lifestyles of people who don’t actually contribute to the music, people who’s livelihood depends on paying off radio stations to play their “hit of the day” song, and those who’s jobs are parasitical at best. Yes. Technology has freed music from those confines and made it easier to get your music to the masses. If that’s what the RIAA means, then I agree. But that’s not what the RIAA means. The RIAA wants a law that specifies you must always and forever carry the parasite. Technology has freed us from that.

Fifth, repeat the paragraph above and replace RIAA with MPAA and “radio” with “movie theaters.”

Movie theaters. Don’t even get me started.

Buggy Whips and Incentive

So basically, President Obama wants us (the technical people who do Internet stuff) to find a way to preserve this crap. To keep the buggy whip manufacturer in business. Is that a fair statement? Given the foregoing, and without solid proof of harm, I think it is.

From the afore-linked buggy whip link:

Back at the turn of the 20th century, the automobile was a newfangled contraption. But even so, it was apparent almost immediately that it was also a revolutionary item that was here to stay. That is one reason why, if you Google the term “buggy whip manufacturer,” you end up with zilch.

Why did all of the buggy whip makers go out of business? Because they thought they were in the business of making buggy whips.


Sure, when the automobile supplanted the horse-drawn buggy, the need for buggy whips evaporated, but it wasn’t the car that killed the buggy whip maker, it was the buggy whip maker’s thinking that did it.

Does that sound familiar? It should. Just as the automobile, the Internet is not going away. The RIAA, MPAA, and other copyright holders are no longer in the business they believe themselves to be in. The Internet, as did the automobile, has redefined their business and associated business model. However, what we see today is the RIAA, MPAA, and other copyright holders sending money to Congress to get laws passed, laws that will ensure the continued, uninterrupted flow of cash into their business model. (Money the copyright holders receive from the ever-growing and apparently soon-to-be-never-ending copyright extensions.)

This is not how progress works.

The idea is that a person creates something worthwhile. That person gets a copyright and receives money for this work during a period of exclusivity. The person knows this exclusive period is going to end and, as such, has a built-in incentive to create again. And again. And again.

In this regard, copyright encourages creativity.

But if copyright exists for 100+ years? Where is the incentive to create again? And if my first creation generates enough cash, where is the incentive for me or my heirs to create again?

There is none. In this regard, copyright kills incentive. Possibly for generations.

Moving Forward

Again, from the afore-linked buggy whip link:

Literary essayist George Steiner once put it this way: Had a buggy whip manufacturer in 1910 rethought things and concluded that rather than being in the buggy whip business he was instead in the business of creating “transportation starting devices,” he just might have been able to survive the challenge of the new economy and make the transition into a new era.

You gotta go with the times, my friends. Unlike our fallen buggy whip business brethren, you must avoid what is known as “marketing myopia.”

Marketing Myopia was an influential business paper written by Theodore Levitt for the Harvard Business Review. The essential idea put forth was that too many businesses think like the old buggy whip makers, with a far too narrow an analysis of what their business is.

The proposition instead was to Think Bigger, to be more expansive, to broaden one’s definition of what business they are in. A broader, more unrestrained criteria offers opportunities that otherwise might have been missed.

Rather than rethinking the Internet, as President Obama would have us do, perhaps it’s time for the copyright holders to rethink the business they’re in. Rather than seeing themselves as “sole owners of the distribution channel,” perhaps they should think differently. Sure, maybe they’re not going to make as much money as they did before. Neither did the buggy whip manufacturers. Neither does the person displaced by automation in the factory. Neither do the checkout clerks whose jobs disappeared with the advent of self-checkout. Maybe they’ll have to rethink what jobs and functionality are necessary. Maybe they’ll have to think deep, remove the unnecessary, and only keep those functions that add value. Maybe they’ll have to operate like any other profit-making venture in the world.

Disruption is like that. But those who think differently will find a way to survive and benefit. Differently.

And perhaps Congress should revisit the length of copyright and give people and their heirs a greater incentive to create.

The Internet is a lot like the highway system. Highways and roads exist primarily to make travel easier. The Internet exists primarily to make sharing information easier. Sometimes highways are used by evil doers. Sometimes the Internet is used by evil doers. But I don’t hear anyone arguing that we should modify the highway system to make it impossible for bank robbers to use.

Why? Because it’s frigging stupid. That’s why. Everything added that would slow down an evil doer would unacceptably impede a law-abiding person. And the same holds true for the Internet.

DRM didn’t fail because it was awesome. And the Internet is not known as The Information Super Highway for nothing.

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