Copyright Is About Incentives, Not Protection

from the net-benefits dept

Whenever we discuss the issue of copyrights and bring up the fact that copyright is not a welfare system to protect creators, people get upset with us. There seems to be this false assumption that copyrights (and patents) are designed for the sake of protecting the creator of content. That's not true and it's never been true. From the very earliest debates about the concept of intellectual property in the US, it has always been about creating incentives for innovation -- or, as the Constitution so eloquently puts it: "to promote the progress of science and useful arts." In thinking over the various debates over copyright, it seems to come down to this particular issue over and over again. Those who are focused on the original purpose of copyrights recognize the problems with the copyright system and are interested in fixing them. Those who believe that the purpose of copyrights is to "protect" don't have a problem with the way things are, or with the idea of strengthening copyrights, even if they weaken the actual market and are a net negative on society.

This is quite clearly indicated in a great article by Julian Sanchez arguing against extending copyright protections to the fashion industry (found via Tim Lee). The question of extending copyrights to the fashion industry has been discussed at length before, but a few key points in Sanchez's piece highlight this split in thinking about the issue. He notes, as many others have, that the industry is constantly innovating and is quite healthy -- which is why the idea that new "incentives" are needed seems laughable. However, if you view things from the position that copyright is about protecting, then it's a different story. Sanchez notes that while individual designers may be harmed, it's only helped the overall industry. From that standpoint, if you believe in protectionism, then you say these new laws are needed to "protect" those who are harmed -- ignoring the greater harm caused to the rest of the industry.

The history of economics is littered with examples of why protectionism is rarely, if ever, a reasonable policy. It tends to backfire badly, in part because it takes away many of the incentives for competition and innovation. In protecting one area, you are inevitably harming another. Indeed, studies have shown that innovation in the fashion industry is often because of the rampant copying, rather than in spite of it. That's the way you want markets to work -- where competition drives innovation by forcing companies to keep innovating to leapfrog each other. Sanchez quotes legal scholar Kal Raustiala to make the point: "When a successful restaurant opens up on a street that's never had a restaurant before, there's a way in which the second business is parasitic on the first. But in the United States, we call that capitalism and competition."

Filed Under: copyright, fashion industry, incentives, protections

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. identicon
    Kuroshi, 24 Sep 2007 @ 7:39pm

    Spelling mistake that screws the sentence for the

    Shouldn't "In protecting one are, you are inevitably harming another." be "In protecting one area, you are inevitably harming another?" I agree completely though, people who want to strengthen it always seem to be the detail kind of people, whereas people against it seem to be people who look at the "big picture". Flame all you want, I'm probably wrong, but I can nearly guarantee that I won't be back on this post. Sorry.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Show Now: Takedown
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads


Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.