I spent today at the National Press Club debate between Lawrence Lessig and James DeLong.
Lessig (Napster, pirate, bolshie, airy fairy academic) was promoting his new book, Free Culture, whilst DeLong (right-wing property rights, corporate litigator) was launching a digital property website.
Both speakers were entertaining, witty and informative - and the lunch was scrummy. They seemed to agree on assumptions (that private property rights are crucial) and desires (innovation and creativity), but whilst Lessig is highly suspicious of regulation which prevents creativity, DeLong fears the loss of incentives.
Why it's important
If you read a book, or give it to someone else to read, you're not infringing copyright law since you're not copying it. In 1976 a radical change in the copyright law meant that copyright status was automatically granted, and therefore in order to use material you had find the copyright holder, and ask for permission. The reason for this was to protect intellectual property from companies who otherwise might make commercial success from distributing works.
The internet has made replication cheap, easy, and digitally perfect. Now, if I read sometihng online (and save it to my hard drive) or send it to someone else to read, I am indeed making a copy, and therefore am required to find the copyright holder, and ask for permission.
Common Sense revolts
Common law held that property rights for land extended to the heavens. A farming family called the Causby's sued aircraft for using 'their' airspace. The Judge threw the case out, claiming "common sense revolts" - imagine if every airline had to secure permission from every piece of land below their flight path! The Causby's did receive a ruling regarding the noise, however, which was causing their chickens to fly into walls.
So the special interests were defeated for the common good, and a major restruction of the notion of 'property' was embraced.
Free culture is like free speech. It doesn't mean culture is available without paying, it means its 'free' in that there are few limits to innovation. Lessig provides the example that 98% of books produced since 1923 are now out of print. DeLong (approximately) says "without strong copyrights there's no incentive to resurrect them." Lessig (probably) says "you're assuming its costless to track down the copyright holder, and buy the rights." His solution is to say that 14 years after printing, unless the copyright owner pays $1 the work becomes 'public'. The influence of Ronald Coase shines through! The barrier of high transaction costs means that old film literally disppears, without being digitally stored.
And Tullock too - Lessig pointed out how the squeeling of corporations is to protect their business models (and profits) from new, more efficient, more creative challenges.
It is the proper pursuit of economists to notice this divergence between the voices we hear, and the good of the economoy as a whole. It's why we're unpopular, but in this regard there seems to be growing public support.
I'm still unsure as to why Lessig's plans for the creative commons differ substantially from present academia. Based upon solid property rights a system of norms have arisen for referencing and citations which means academics actively publish their works in as much of a 'public' sense as possible. Personally, I will get creative commons licenses for my fables and romance stories, but I don't see the need for my economics - the architecture is already in place.
Winner: Lessig, by engulfment!