Thursday, December 6, 2012

Mr. Hart: Copyright Creates Scarcity... and Scarcity Is [Often] Bad

Recently Terrence "Terry" Hart of Copyhype posted a flawed argument in regards to copyright and the nature of scarcity over at his blog. The scarcity model copyright encourages is one of its fatal flaws in the age of computer networks. Thus I feel the need to respond to his argument alleging that this is not so.

In his typical fashion, his argument is well written and well researched, complete with footnotes. I must commend him for having so much time to write such scholarly blogposts.

His argument revolves around disproving a trivial misconception (that copyright isn't about the copy, but the act of copying). In his odds and ends section, he proves that copying isn't infinite. While he provides an interesting and useful idea, this doesn't imply that something is equally scarce to something else because quantitatively they are both countable values. If I there exists 1 widget of type X, and there exists 1,000,000 widgets of type Y. It is safe to say because X < Y, X is more scarce than Y.

He explains that copyright is does not cause scarcity largely based on the premise that copying itself is scarce. I wondered, how does this make sense? For most of his post, he discusses X ("the rights associated with copyright") and Y ("property rights on the work itself"). Terry spends a lot of time focusing on proving X != Y and Scarcity(X) != ∞, to come up with the conclusion Scarcity(X) = 0. To elaborate:

  • If X != Y, it doesn't automatically follow that Y is a property of scarcity, ie. Scarcity(X, Y). He makes no any effort to prove the existence of a casual relationship, just inequality, X != Y. That is, his conclusion Scarcity(X) = 0 seems sort of tangential to his point.
  • If Scarcity(X) != ∞, it doesn't imply Scarcity(X) = 0, because Scarcity can be N where N != ∞.
He puts together a bunch of well written, supported arguments on the nature of copyright as property, and that there is indeed a finite limit to copying. I agree with both ideas. But he proceeds to use these ideas to reach an invalid conclusion.

Copyright produces scarcity because it enforces limits. In fact, that is literally what copyright is, a limitation on the public sans-copyright-holder to engage in various activities, included but not limited to copying. Any such argument about how copyright encourages creative activity, even if they are perfectly valid and reasonable, simply build on this fact.

In fact, copyright is a specific kind of artificial scarcity. (M: some pro-copyright'ers take offense to this idea, because the "artificial scarcity" seems to have some kind of negative connotation. But I would argue that it's copyright that gives artificial scarcity a negative connotation, not the other way around.) Natural scarcity is scarcity that exists given our understanding of nature and the limitations it imposes on us. The fact that there only exists a certain acreage of land on this planet implies that land is scarce (and ideally habitable land even more more scarce). Scarce, but naturally so. That doesn't make natural scarcity good or intuitively acceptable though.

Artificial scarcity is scarcity that only exists in the laws of man. Copyright is artificial scarcity because it exists only in the laws of man. Without copyright law, the limitations enumerated in copyright law wouldn't exist naturally. This isn't even making an argument, it's stating the obvious.

As Terry points out, the upper bound of copying is a natural finite scarcity, that is, Scarcity(X) != ∞. If you have a printing press, eventually you'd run out of trees to make paper from. Even Internet bandwidth is limited. So there is a natural scarcity in making copies... this is true.

But, technology exists to push the boundaries of scarcity. When we develop new farming techniques for instance, food becomes less scarce. More people can eat. This is good, especially for people who otherwise couldn't eat.

But the key thing for copyright is that technology has also made the the act of copying and distribution substantially easier and cheaper. No longer do you need an expensive printing press or media press to make large numbers of copies. Any old computer will do. Technology has pushed the natural scarcity inherent in copying to the stratosphere. While copyright has always been an artificial scarcity, it was never noticeable until the natural scarcity surrounding it was lifted as it was during the rise of computer networks.

It's like if you had a law preventing people from visiting Mars without the NASA's concurrence. This wouldn't be very controversial today. Who can go to Mars anyway, besides NASA (with a ton of funding)? But it would be controversial in a world where going to Mars was as easy and safe as going to the supermarket. Suddenly such a law would be an intolerable restriction on humanity's freedom of movement. Technology changes perspectives on the law.

Likewise, in the world of the printing press: who cares if they can not make copies of works? Who even owns a printing press? Only specialized companies.

This is no longer the case. We now live in a world where the technology exists to provide the sum of published human knowledge and culture to all the world's people. In such a world as it stands, copyright and specifically the scarcity it brings is an intolerable restriction. It's unfortunate Terry can't see this.