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. icon
    Mike (profile), 13 Jun 2008 @ 10:41am

    Re: getting personal

    Since there's so much theoretical in these comments and most people here blog, how do these scenarios sound (ya know, theoretically):

    I've answered this at least a hundred times. On those scenarios: GO RIGHT AHEAD.

    Here's the full explanation:

    http://www.techdirt.com/article.php?sid=20070412/183135#c612

    ---
    As we've said repeatedly, we have no problem with people taking our content and reposting it. It's funny how many people come here, like yourself, and assume you've found some "gotcha." You haven't. There already are about 10 sites that copy Techdirt, post for post. Some of them give us credit. Some of them don't. We don't go after any of them.

    Here's why:

    1. None of those sites get any traffic. By itself, they offer nothing special.

    2. If anything, it doesn't take people long to read those sites and figure out that the content is really from Techdirt. Then they just come here to the original source. So, it tends to help drive more traffic to us. That's cool.

    3. As soon as the people realize the other sites are simply copying us, it makes those sites look really, really bad. If you want to risk your reputation like that, go ahead, but it's a big risk.

    4. A big part of the value of Techdirt is the community here. You can't just replicate that.

    5. Another big part of the value of Techdirt is that we, the writers, engage in the comments. You absolutely cannot fake that on your own site.

    So, really, what's the purpose of copying our content, other than maybe driving a little traffic our way?

    So, if you really want to, I'd suggest it's pretty dumb, but go ahead.
    ---

    The only difference is in your 3rd point, about a site more authoritative. Again, that's fine. It would end up harming their reputation as people realized what was going on, and that would end up hurting their "authority" and improving our own.

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