When should the government intervene?

There has not been a lot of comment on this site about the launch of PRISM (The Partnership for Research Integrity in Science & Medicine – a coalition of publishing organizations that is campaigning against the proposals in Congress to require public access to federally-funded research. One reason for this lack of comment is that the actual arguments and assertions made by PRISM are so transparent and easily refuted; I called them simple-minded in an earlier post (here), and I have seen nothing that changes that judgment. Also, lots of other blogs and listservs have dealt extensively with the claims of PRISM, especially after the Director of Columbia University Press resigned from the Executive Council of the American Association of Publishers over its support of the Partnership and the Director of Cambridge University Press wrote a letter repudiating its absurd assertions (see news item in The Chronicle of Higher Education here).

But even a silly debate can produce significant points, and one of the most important contributions to this argument comes from William Patry, senior copyright counsel for Google, whose blog has been cited here several times before. The “PRISM principles” refer repeatedly to preventing “government intervention” in scientific research. The irony of complaining of government interference in research that is paid for from federal tax monies in the first place should be pretty obvious, but Patry adds another point that is worth our attention. As he says in this post, “Copyright is always Government Intervention.” By definition, copyright is a government-granted monopoly that artificially supports the price of intellectual property to provide an incentive to creation. Patry nicely explains the logic behind this government intervention and the reasoning that underlies the attempt to create a balance between incentives for creators and opportunities for users.

However one feels about whether we have struck the appropriate balance in the US or have erred to one side or the other, most will agree that the economic rationale for copyright as a government intervention in the free market is sound. We can only wonder if PRISM, however, will be true to its professed disdain for government measures and support the total abolition of copyright. Such a change would create a genuinely free market, where publishers would be free to compete with each other by publishing the same works at competitive prices; consumers would likely benefit from lower prices for books and movies, but it is pretty certain that creativity would suffer in the long run.