How Social Mores Can Deal With 'Unfair' Copying, Even In Absence Of Copyright
from the being-neighborly dept
Now, I can already hear critics of Techdirt furiously writing their "you hypocrite..." comments, but let me finish before declaring that. At no point did I think this was wrong, and it most certainly was not illegal. But I did think that it was not very nice and not very neighborly. One of the nice things about many blogs is that they're quite generous with "hat tips" and giving credit to other sites where they find things. Those links may not have much overall impact, but it's just a social nicety. At one point, I tried to make this point to an editor at that other publication -- again, trying to point out in as friendly a manner as possible, that it was the nice or neighborly thing to do to simply give a little "found via" or "so and so alerted us to..." link. My point wasn't that they had to do this, or that not doing it was "harming" me in any way. In fact, it was unrelated to us directly. I pointed out that from a perception standpoint, I was actually worried this would hurt that other publication's reputation. I pointed out that I wasn't the only one noticing this, and that some other sites were as well -- and that the potential "cost" of having people criticize them for "not being nice" over such a practice -- even if it was perfectly legal -- could be quite high as compared to the "cost" of providing a simple hat tip.
Eventually, two things happened. A few stories were written on other sites about this publication, falsely accusing it of "stealing" stories from other sites. I didn't think those stories were accurate or fair, because no stories were "stolen," but it did create a reputation issue for the publication, and in response that publication quickly became much better about giving "credit" to where it found the stories, even when it did significant reporting on its own. In my eyes, the reputation of this site increased quite a bit, not because it was obeying any law, or doing what it "had" to do -- but because it started doing the nice and neighborly thing to do.
I was thinking about this again, after reading Cory Doctorow's recent column for Locus Magazine, where he discusses someone who got upset with him for reposting public domain advertisements that others had scanned and uploaded to a community that discusses such things. The main complaint was that people felt (incorrectly) that Cory had reposted such things "without credit." After pointing out that there was, in fact, credit, everything was fine. Cory spends most of the article discussing why "permission" isn't needed -- but I actually think that this story, and my experience above, highlight a separate point that is really important:
Even in cases where there is no intellectual property right, social mores, social expectations and desire to keep one's own reputation, can actually solve such issues.
Believers in strong copyright act as if this is impossible or that it never happens. But that's not the case. In both my example above, and in the situation Cory faced, there were no intellectual property rights at stake. There was no legal obligation to credit whatsoever. But there was tremendous social pressure to do so. There's actually been some serious economic research on this topic, and Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in Economics for exactly this type of research -- showing that social mores within certain communities can often act as a better regulator of "public goods," than any government mandated privileges or property rights.
Does this mean that copying without credit is stopped entirely? Of course not. But it does show that it is not, as some people claim, a "costless," situation. There can be a tremendous cost to reputation in doing so. It's why people have an inherent negative reaction when they hear stories about comedians "copying" each others' jokes, or any other situation where someone tries to take credit for something that someone else did before them. And, in the end, these things tend to work themselves out, without relying on an overly broad form of government protectionism.