What If Copyright Only Applied To Commercial Use?

from the a-step-forward dept

Earlier this week, we wrote about the Cato Institute's new series on the Future of Copyright, with a wonderful first post about just how broken copyright has become, written by Rasmus Fleischer. Our own Timothy Lee has now penned the second piece in the series, wondering if a middle ground would be to just focus copyright laws on commercial use, and allow people to make use of copyrighted content for personal use. As he notes, throughout most of history, copyright laws really only did apply to commercial use, in part because personal use wasn't even an issue.

Lee notes the inevitable trend towards having the music industry embrace things like file sharing in one way or another, suggesting that having copyright laws just forbid commercial exploitation wouldn't hurt the industry at all -- since most of the business models they're finally embracing route around the personal copying issue -- and would stop criminalizing people who are going to get access to content anyway. As per usual with Lee's writing, it's a great, well-reasoned, thought-provoking write up. Go read the whole thing.

However, while I agree that limiting copyright just to commercial use would be a step in the right direction, I'm still not convinced that the restrictions are necessary even for commercial use. Part of the problem is that the distinction between "personal use" and "commercial use" is extremely blurry. Is my personal blog "personal" or "commercial" if I put Google ads on it? What if I don't have ads, but use it to get a job or promote my company? Commercial use and personal use are not clear cut.

On top of that, if someone else is able to do something commercially valuable with my content, why should that be a problem? If anything, that should be encouraged -- and the end result will often be that it makes the original content more valuable. Google uses fair use defenses to protect itself from copyright infringement charges, but it's ridiculous to think that anyone is even complaining, since Google makes their content easier to find. And Google is most certainly a commercial entity. Having someone else do something commercial with content is a good way to help increase the value of that content, which is likely to flow back to the original creator anyway. Yes, some of the benefit will flow to the commercial entity, and some of the benefit may flow to others -- but these are positive externalities, as plenty of benefit will flow back to the original creator as well. Once you realize that these commercial uses are likely to expand the overall market, you want to get any obstacles out of the way, even if some others might benefit as well. Sticking an artificial construct like copyright in the middle just doesn't seem necessary, and actually makes the process less efficient. Imagine if Google needed to get permission from everyone before indexing their sites?

Lee suggests that without copyright law on commercial use, you would have a free rider problem, but that's not necessarily true. Companies that pick up business models that turn the free rider problem into a benefit won't have much of an issue. Issues about "counterfeiting" can be taken care of by anti-fraud laws, rather than copyright, and there will still be plenty of value in "authentic" versions of content and other forms of scarce goods connected to the content creator (access, live performance, new content creation, etc.). So, I agree that legalizing personal use is a sensible step, but I'm still not convinced that copyright even makes sense for commercial reasons.
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Filed Under: commercial use, copyright, personal use


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  1. identicon
    William Reuch, 13 Jun 2008 @ 8:55am

    The trouble with this never ending stream of words about copyright is that as long as only one side is heard - or allowed to talk and be listened to - there will be no solution.

    There seem to be no end of computer nerds that know how to fix copyright. All of them with the same end goal: the nerds wants to have their way to 100%

    There seem to be no end of over-paid nerds that have opinions on how much (or even at all) an artist is allowed to make money. This is called plan-economy and has been tried in the old soviet with joseph stalin and so on.

    This all become even more ridiculous as they only seem to debate commercial pop/rock music and how it is produced and how it is financed. Which is just normal as most of the nerds seem to be the children of overpaid white people from rich countries.

    There are ridiculous arguments floating around like "you cant stop the progress of technology" - which history will show you is completely false and is just another way for the nerds to say "this is not for you to discuss - this is only nerd-only territory".

    Pirate Bay is a good examle of commercial use. They made milions on ad-sales by atcing as brokers for illegal trafficking. This money was then laundered through a chain of companies/countries to avoid tax and to avoid debate. The guys had violent rightwing original financing and one of them is now also wanted on drug charges.

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