Are we sure copyright isn’t part of the future?

You know how you can tell a social or political point of view is losing ground?  When the crazy stuff bubbles to the surface.   Here in the U.S., for example, the GOP is floundering because it has a bit of a crazy people problem.  Intelligent conservatives remain frustrated by the headline-making loons in their party who don’t realize the sexual revolution already happened.  I certainly do a spit-take just like millions of others when I read about yet another politician who wants to make gayness illegal or roll back the rights of women to the dark ages, but I temper my own reaction with the faith that at least some of this righteous regressiveness is due to the disintegration of a dying element in our politics, just fading voices trying to be heard against the tidal wave of history.  Interestingly, the anti-copyright crowd would have you believe the same thing about those of us who speak out in defense of this body of law — that we are the ones clinging to a set of old values and methodologies while the future moves inexorably away from our world view because we don’t realize the digital revolution already happened.  But even a casual sampling of observations suggests to me that it is the presumptive revolutionaries on these matters whose positions are fizzling like an unstable isotope.

Speaking broadly, I’ve been paying close attention to this debate for just about two years, and it was this time last year that I started writing and hosting this blog.  Regarding copyright, it’s clear that the largest plank in the anti platform is the assertion that this system of laws stifles innovation.  Yet, despite the constant repetition of this particular thesis, I have yet to encounter one solid example of some economy-growing innovation being asphyxiated by the alleged toxicity of copyright.  From talks and articles by the learned Mr. Lessig to the smart-aleck drumbeat of Techdirt to the un-researched RSC memo of Derek Khanna to even the testimony of innovators last week before the House Judiciary Committee, nobody has presented any tangible examples of the untapped opportunities we are failing to exploit to the benefit of our prosperity.  I keep listening for a solid example, and I would not write in opposition if I heard one. After all, I have kids who need jobs in the future; and I no more wish to protect irrelevant, economically untenable, legal systems than I want my daughter growing up in a society without rights for women.  But after two years of listening, I got nothin’.

And not unlike the minutia-madness exhibited by factions of the contemporary GOP, we seem to be witnessing a lot of desperate scrambling these days among copyright’s antagonists; and it is interesting to watch some of the wheels come off just as we head into Fall and a comprehensive review of the law.  At one extreme we have Rick Falkvinge, founder of the European Pirate Party, sounding in this recent article like the black knight from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, proclaiming victory within his grasp despite having all four limbs hacked off.  To quote musician/journalist Helienne Lindvall, “As a Swede living in the UK, I can tell you how little influence the Pirate Party has in either country. Sure, they had a perfect storm back in 2009, when the Pirate Bay trial coincided with the election for the EU Parliament, managing to get two reps elected. But in the general election the following year the party got 0.65% of the vote, so has no representatives at all in the parliament/riksdag. They still feature in media debates on copyright – after all, a little controversy increases viewer numbers – but are largely viewed as a sideshow.”

Two posts ago, I wrote about the strange macro-economics of CCIA lobbyist Matt Schruers making the astonishingly facile argument that money not spent on media still goes into the economy somewhere.  And this week, Mr. Schruers offers this report stating that search engines (i.e. Google) actually contribute very little to pirate website traffic, whence we are meant to draw the conclusion that “disappearing” search results is unlikely to have a substantial effect on infringement because most users intent on finding illegal media already know where they’re going. Aside from substantiating a generalization that seems intuitive, the report indicates that, for example, a mere 8% of traffic to The Pirate Bay comes from a Google search. It’s worth noting, though, that if this number is accurate, that’s still about 240 million page views for the largest infringing site in the world. (See also VoxIndie’s analysis of this report.)

But in the scheme of what we’re talking about, does it matter if search is responsible for 8, 15, or 30 percent of traffic to TPB when the funding industry behind the study is responsible for 100% of the PR messages that tell users media piracy is socially beneficial, and copyright is irrelevant in the digital age? Or when that funding industry profits from said traffic no matter how it travels? Because I’m pretty sure U.S. companies are supposed to be 0% responsible for supporting or profiting from illegal markets, so I personally find studies like these and the not-so-investigative journalism they spawn to be exactly the kind of distraction they’re designed to be.  It’s lobbyist hairsplitting reminiscent of the political spin used by interests who are skating on rather thin ice — and probably in the wrong direction.

Photo by caitlin_w

Photo by caitlin_w

After two years of paying close attention to these matters, I can say that both anecdotal and studied evidence suggests that most of the general public and leaders in the U.S. and abroad still support creator and author rights. In fact, very few outspoken antagonists of copyright can even bring themselves to openly say that creator rights are unimportant.  This makes sense given the likelihood that anywhere from 30 to 50% of the people you know are rights holders or direct beneficiaries of intellectual property.  As outspoken and unapologetic as musician David Lowery has been on these issues, his bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker have actually seen an increase in their fan base and overall support.  Chris Ruen, in his book Freeloading, states that nearly everyone he speaks to about the ills of freely downloading music come to understand the mechanics at play and to sympathize with the musicians being harmed.  In late July, the American Consumer Institute released a report indicating that 90% of Americans support and understand the value of intellectual property rights.  And just last week, US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker announced during a presidential visit to Music Row in Nashville, “Instead of viewing a new album as an expense to our economy, we now view it as an asset, because it supports jobs and generates revenue for years to come.”  This was in reference to a recent change in how we calculate GDP to reflect innovation, R&D, and the creation of “multiple types of intellectual property” like movies, books, music, and television.

This is where the real conversation is going.  So, it’s little surprise to see the anti-copyright crowd grasping at so many flimsy straws.

© 2013, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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  • “Regarding copyright, it’s clear that the largest plank in the anti platform is the assertion that this system of laws stifles innovation.”

    I believe the digerati think that is true. If all content were free just imagine how many Spotify’s would be flourishing. Yet they ignore the fact that great content drives revenue to search engines and that great content is what fuels the Internet.

    Their only advantage is that they have an enormous stockpile of great content funded over the past century which they will plunder until they run out.

    • What’s interesting (but fairly typical) about you is while you seem to be a proponent of copyright you have no problem illegally plastering your Facebook page images with unattributed photos, some of which clearly violate the photographers copyright.

      It is really telling about how much copyright is truly respected, when many pro-copyright people can’t seem to avoid violating copyright in the act of trying to promote it. One of the great ironies of this debate that I’ve personally encountered, over and over and over.

      • No photo on this site violates copyright. They either belong to me or they are paid for stock photos with credited attribution.

      • David, I actually think M’s comment was meant for my FarerPlay FB Site and the photos used there; most of which are photos I’ve taken or purchased from stock houses.

        But to M’s point, I do need to do a better job of crediting photos and yes occasionally, I do use photos I access from Google that deserve a higher level of research to verify they are in fact free.

      • Apologies to M and Will for the confusion. When I use Ipad app on the run to check comments, I often miss little things like the author or target of the comment. I should have paid better attention, especially as M specifically mentioned this site does a good job of using licensed photos.

      • Will,

        Even if you take a photo yourself, it doesn’t mean you can share it willy nilly. If you take a photo of something that it itself copyrighted, you are violating copyright. There are many examples of that on your site.

        Also, there are many examples of photos you DIDN’T take and didn’t put attribution on or misattributed it.

        How you can run such a site for years and not have anyone call you on it is kinda telling.

  • Thanks for what I think is an accurate assessment of the copyright debate. I shared this with my pro-copyright FB group.

  • It’s one thing to believe in copyright, it’s another thing to actually make it work.

  • The hilarity/hypocrisy of that ‘search engine “study”…’ :

    the author, as you point out, says that search engines aren’t driving the majority of pirate traffic… so sending DMCA notices to the likes of Google will have no effect, nor will high [first page] rankings of illegitimate results.

    But then goes on to offer a “solution”–
    SEO optimizing legitimate outlets… [Search Engine Optimization] which is essentially raises the result of a site on a search engine is his answer? After he went to great lengths that search engines and results don’t mean a thing? What a joke of a “study”, and yet another attempt at grasping at straws.

    • James, I ways find it fascinating to attempt to understand commenter’s true position behind their comments.

      Judging from your cynicism are you one who believes piracy is unstoppable or a noble way to express YOUR “freedom of Speech” or some other rationalization?

  • Will, James is mocking the study from the CCIA. He is no fan of piracy.

    • ^this

      Sorry Will, my comment was poorly written (i should do more proof reading before hitting ‘send’, lol).

      Add “David” & “CCIA”… Should read more like:
      “The author [of the CCIA study] as you point out [David],…”

      P.s. I hate “typing” on a tablet! 🙂

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  • Actually, I felt the same way. I was responding from my iPhone and could have done a better job reading. The important point is we are on the same page, responding to David’s excellent post.

    • Agreed.
      4 out of 5 of my immediate family rely on copyright for direct income (and the other 1 indirectly). these discussions ‘hit home’ like no other, and affect the quality of life for all my loved ones – including myself.

      There’s simply no reason a person should not benefit from the fruit of one’s own labor -when that labor is in demand and being used. The blood, sweat, and tears (if people only knew the lengths that go into some of my work…) is not for the benefit of the quickest thief or the biggest bully.

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  • The other point missed by CCIA (of course deliberately) is that many sites are found initially by search (and, it’s odd that he uses the Psy example – which of course was a free YouTube video that was mostly found in the YouTube search box). find the content on movies2k first with google – then go back to movies2k. When movies2k goes down, use search to find, say, movieberry. Fact is that if this isn’t a big deal, then why won’t Google stop indexing the Pirate Bay – which is basically 100% pirated content and doesn’t even purport to be DMCA compliant? Change the test from “is some piece of content on a site theoretically not-copyrighted” to “does the site respect copyright and respond to takedown notices and implement reasonable filtering” and if the answer is “no” – don’t serve up search results to the site. It’s a SMALLER burden on Google then responding to millions of PirateBay takedown notices. but of course – then you can’t sell ads to people trying to advertise to pirates . . .

    • Good point.
      There’s also money being made (by Google and the like) by leaving those pointers up, as they sell ads against them (and likely on the pirate sites themselves)

    • Too add to that last sentiment:
      It is telling how Google et al handles these thing. You can bet yer arse that if the cost of doing take-downs was anywhere approaching the amount they profit from keeping them there, they would be gone tomorrow.

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