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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Backblog 2: In which Ryan ruminates on the Copyright Lottery

Over the past six months or so, I've started several blog posts, but lacked the time and/or inclination to finish them right then, so I just saved them as drafts to finish later. This week is later. This post was originally begun on March 3, 2006.

Heather-Marie and I have had several discussions lately (sometimes very heated ones) about copyrights, and how they've become over-reaching and oppressive. The particulars of the discussions, such as our positions and cases (both real and hypothetical) aren't really important, though. What is important is the question that finally came out of them:

Why do people think copyrights are worth so much?

Really think about that for a little while. Unpack it. Pull it apart and look at the pieces. Why are copyrights so highly valued? All of the original things you have ever created, from songs to poems to school papers to fingerpaintings you made when you were 4 years old, are covered by copyright. And in the United States, they will be until 70 years after you die.

Your great great grandchildren will still own the copyright to your senior thesis when they are 60 years old (based on some rough estimates, of course). And that's assuming there are no further extensions, which seems unlikely.

Setting aside arguments about copyright length, why should we even care?

The simple answer is that we've bought into the myth of the Copyright Lottery: Because some creations are worth tons of money, it raises the perceived value of all of them.

If you buy one of 500,000 tickets for a $2 million dollar lottery, your ticket might be worth $2 million. But let's face it -- it almost certainly isn't.

Likewise, the worldwide music market brings in about $32 billion each year. Given the tens of thousands of songs produced in a given year (both professional and amateur, since both are subject to copyright), only a very small number of them account for most of the money, but those few skew our perception of the monetary value of songs in general, which is much lower.

The uproar over Google Book Search is another example. Some authors are upset because giving people easy access to the text of their books could cost them some revenue. Well, true, it could potentially decrease their revenue. In reality, though, most authors make so little from their books that it will never affect them. Obscurity and oblivion are far bigger threats than copyright infringement. It only seems otherwise because we're blinded by the high profile successes.

In fact, that's true in every field, from books to movies to music to sports to business: the 1% of 1% that make it big cause us to overlook the vast majority who don't.

The vast majority of creative artists do what they do out of love or conviction or passion, not to get rich, and they are the ones who are most hurt by copyright laws that so completely bind up all works (in the interest of protecting the high-achieving 0.01%) that they're doomed to languish in obscurity. If you asked authors to choose between a 1 in 1000 chance of riches and a 999 in 1000 chance of their book never being read at all, I can guess what most of them would say.

Thankfully, because of the equalizing effects of technology, things seem to be changing. It's no longer impossible to imagine a future in which no musicians make hundreds of millions of dollars, and instead many more of them get a slice of the pie. That would mean that a very few would get a smaller slice than they're accustomed to, but many more people would get some than have before. That's not part of a communist pipe dream, but a real potential economic future in which technology has lowered the barriers to entry and raised the general quality far enough that more people can participate in creating and finding new works.

That may be a pretty scary (and perhaps unimaginable) idea, if you're already on the copyright gravy train or seriously hope to get on it. If you're not, though, then it's one of the most exciting changes in the history of human creativity.

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