A big footprint

The Computer & Communications Industry Association, which has recently grabbed some headlines with its complaint to the Federal Communications Commission about misleading and over-broad copyright warnings, has just released a report it commissioned on “Fair Use in the U.S. Economy.” The purpose of this report is to “measure the footprint of fair use on the U.S. economy,” and its conclusion is startling.   Industries that benefit substantially from fair use, says the report, employ over 10 million people and account for about one-sixth of the total U.S. GNP. That is a big footprint!

The PDF of the full report is available here.

In the past I have objected to claims made by the copyright industry about the amount of money lost through unauthorized file sharing or piracy. Those figures, I have suggested, are over-inflated and conjectural because they rely on lost opportunity costs and do not account for the economic benefits that might be gained from these activities. Now that the CCIA has decided to look at the economic equation from the other end and examine what benefits fair use (legal uses, as opposed to piracy and file-sharing) provides to the economy, it seems fair to ask how reliable its figures are.

The study, which was done by consultants from Capital Trade, a firm specializing in consulting and analysis of international trade, identifies “core industries” that “derive a significant amount of their current business from the demand generated by fair use and the Internet.” It is hard to argue that search engines, for example, have fair use at the center of their business. Other sectors, like consumer electronics, certainly are dependent on fair use, but one could argue that both purchased content and “pirated” content reduce the share of that industry that is dependent on fair use. Education, in this report, is also apparently identified as a core industry, since it depends heavily on the non-copyrightability of facts as well as other fair use freedoms. Other non-core sectors are also examined when their businesses “facilitate the output of the fair use core.” The identification of these industries and the measures used to evaluate their economic impact, are based on the WIPO recommendations for studying the role of knowledge industries in the world economy.

In so far as its conclusions are understood to show the economic impact of industries that would be significantly harmed by a narrowing of fair use, it seems a careful and clearly defensible effort to remind us that usability of information is as important to oar economy as is its creation. Without fair use, many of these industries would not go away altogether, but they would be badly hampered and would contribute much less to the U.S. economy. We have heard so much about the important economic impact of the industries that create copyrighted content; it seems like a vital counter-balance to consider the impact of those industries that benefit from the legal, unlicensed use of that content.