Copyright Still Essential to Economic Future 

iipa-infographicThere is a lot of anxiety about jobs these days and with good reason.  The subject of trade has a lot of people on edge, and we’re only just beginning to talk seriously about the very real prospect of automation killing middle-class jobs in places other than the obvious repetitive factory work.  As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts in a video on, AI won’t replace everything.  “If your job is repetitive, if your job simply involves the friction of capitalism, that is, middlemen work, your job is doomed.  However, if your job involves creativity, imagination, innovation, thinking, experience, leadership, hey… there’s a bright future for you.  Because the economy itself is changing from commodity-based capital to intellectual capital.  Intellectual capital cannot be mass produced,” Kaku says.

2012 was the first year the “core copyright industries” broke the trillion-dollar mark for contribution to U.S. GDP, and that number has grown steadily since, with 2015 weighing in at $1.2 trillion according to the latest report from the International Intellectual Property Association (IIPA.)  As in the past, the new IIPA report shows the core copyright industries as growing at a faster rate (4.81%) than the entire rest of the American economy (2.11%). What it defines as the “core” includes industries directly associated with copyright ownership (e.g. publishing, movies, music, software), which continues to support about 5.5 million fairly high-paying middle-class jobs.  The IIPA also notes that what it defines as the “total copyright industries,” including those that derive direct benefit from the “core industries,” as supporting over 11 million jobs.

Critics of these types of positive-outlook reports often respond by asking rhetorically why then do copyright owners complain about infringements like large-scale piracy when they seem to be doing just fine?  To me, this is a bit like saying, “The air is breathable today, so why do we need environmental protections?”  Piracy is only one threat to copyright; another is a mindset that the purpose of copyright is largely obsolete in the digital age.

It is also important to maintain a perspective which distinguishes between macro views and micro views.  In the big picture, these types of reports from the IIPA reveal that investing in intellectual property overall remains a robust and positive sector.  This macro view will not, however, reveal specific subsections of the “core industries,” like the independent photographer whose works are appropriated in ways that eat away at the combined revenue streams for his small business.  I addressed a similar matter in this post with regard to the difference between major motion picture profitability writ large versus the effects of piracy on an independent production.

It has long been believed that as the market becomes more automated, the jobs that depend upon human creativity will never be taken over by the robots.  As Kaku points out, despite what the sci-fi writers say, AI doesn’t perform these tasks particularly well.  There are plenty of computer scientists who might beg to differ and certainly at least a few who insist that one day an AI will compose and perform symphonies, write novels, and make movies. But before we time-travel all the way into that reality, we currently live in a market economy that needs jobs to put food on the table.  And for the moment, the investment in copyright-based industry appears to offer better returns than many other sectors.

In this regard, the presidential transition represents a tricky moment for some of us.  The president I like, and I suspect a lot of creative people like, has not been good for IP and has been particularly starry-eyed when it comes to Silicon Valley’s influence on copyright policy.  I have repeatedly asserted that when many of the OSPs say “innovation,” what they really mean is non-creative destruction, which siphons value from certain kinds of labor without replacing it with new and comparable forms of labor opportunities. Now, as Andrew Orlowski observes in a new article for The Register, president-elect Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum has “snubbed” the bigwigs of Silicon Valley, which Orlowski suggests reflects an understanding that Facebook and Google are simply not major job creators.

Personally, I’d like to see a balance on that forum. I don’t think we’re putting the internet on the shelf, and we’re certainly not going to effectively manage the 21st century economy by pretending digital technology and networked systems don’t exist.  But there’s also no denying the fact that the Obama administration was remiss in properly valuing the economic and social significance of copyright-based work, as evidenced by tone-deaf policies like the DOJ ruling on 100% music licensing, the FCC “unlock the box” proposal, and to an extent, even the policy direction of the Library of Congress.

One way or another, it would be great to see copyright become non-partisan again like it’s supposed to be.  Because no matter what other issues are in play, copyright supports one aspect of American life that I think we can all agree on—and that’s the bounty of creative works nearly everyone taps into every day. That’s the fun part of America, remember? These works don’t generally pollute the environment, cause adverse side-effects on users, or even break treaties with indigenous tribes.  And the fact that the fun industries sustain millions of good jobs, contribute nearly 7% to the U.S. economy, and add up to $177 billion in exports is kinda cool. Why wouldn’t we protect that?

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