What everybody knows

“Authors are only motivated to write if they know their rights will be protected.”

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

The second of these quotes, from Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,” is very familiar, I think, and demonstrably false.  Indeed, even Boswell acknowledged its falsity as he recorded it, and attributed the comment to Johnson’s “indolent disposition.”  The first quote comes from this fascinating article in the online version of the German magazine “Der Spiegel” reporting research that suggests that German’s 19th century industrial expansion may have been at least partially driven by the absence of strong copyright protection.

That authors must have strong copyright protection in order to create is presented in this article as a conventional belief, the kind of thing that everybody knows and accepts as a matter of course.  Such bromides are almost always false, like Johnson’s remark, or at least incomplete.  Perhaps the greatest value of the Spiegel article, short as it is, is that it demonstrates that a complex situation, such as the cultural impact of printing, copyright and the distribution of books, cannot be reduced to truisms.  Complex analysis is required, and Eckhard Hoffner’s research is an example of such analysis.

Hoffner’s discussion suggests two major points to me, both of which contradict the received wisdom about why we need ever-stronger copyright protection.

First, he shows that copyright was never really a great benefit for the majority of authors.  The point that an obscure scientist in copyright-free Germany actually earned greater royalties for his book on leather tanning than Mary Shelley did for “Frankenstein” debunks the economic side of the claim that copyright is always a benefit to authors.  But it is even more important to recognize, as the article puts it, that “the prospect of a wide readership motivated scientists in particular to publish the results of their research.”  Impact and reputation, then as now, were a major motivation for publication, and the higher prices that were made possible by copyright protection often inhibited those sought-after benefits.

Second, it is important to recognize that the real beneficiaries of strong copyright protection have always been intermediaries, as well as a few best-selling authors.  Its history in England shows that authors’ well-being was used as a campaigning point by publishers seeking copyright protection, but that it was the publishers themselves who reaped the real rewards, as they always intended.  Copyright, Hoffner shows, depressed competition and allowed publishers to make a great deal of money while inhibiting the dissemination of books and knowledge.  The irony is that it is only in recent years, as the role of intermediaries has diminished due to digital dissemination, that we can seriously look to a future where copyright protection might be reined in for the overall benefit of  learning.

3 thoughts on “What everybody knows”

  1. Let us hope that the greater learning that occurs (contrary to Queen Anne’s pretext) through the unconstrained copying facilitated by the Internet helps undo the descent of copyright into a sacred cow and its advocacy into a religion.

  2. Great post!

    I like to add three additional points. First, anyone who opposes copyright law or patent law (see 2nd point) is almost instantly confronted with a major obstacle: one cannot escape the position of being blamed for using counter-factual evidence. There is simply no, or at least not sufficient empirical research to back one’s argument against current copyrights/patents law and provide numbers of how the economy or a particular industry improves because of the absence of such laws. At most, one can point out to the successes of patent pools, or in this case, as Höffner’s study illustrates, that the absence of strong copyright law leads to a greater diffusion pattern (wider scale & scope of sales) and a higher pace of ‘production’ (both in terms of numbers and variety of publications).

    (If anyone knows of any other empirical research as Höffner’s research, do not hesitate and please share..)

    Second, when I consider patent law, I cannot come to any other conclusion that the current and judicial paradigm is completely wrong. It misses any economic sense: instead of rewarding innovators by enhancing their competitive capabilities (at most tax-exemptions, or just nothing at all simply because it is just part of the competitive game), we reward them by handing out monopoly rights, and consequently limit competition. As if capitalism is about creating monopolistic market structures, or at least oligopolistic ones. In light of capitalism one must be very conscious that these particular types of limitations are anti-free-market. The adverse effects are plentiful and are all, though in their own right, detrimental to the quality of an economy.

    Third, the political trend is to make copyright protection stronger, not weaker. Take the Bush gift to Walt Disney as an example (extending the time frame of copyrights). Patent law is going the same way. Last year the EU negotiated a new treaty, and there are no signs that this trend is reversing. Moreover, the internet is getting much more restricted then it used to be. While sharing your enthusiasm for a more thoughtful approach, I am worried the opposite is more likely. One could see it as a race to the bottom. Notwithstanding, posts like this qualify as a celebration of common sense. Perhaps this kind of common sense even trickles up.

    Again, great post!

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