Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Death of Copyright: One Observed Solution

Intellectual  property in digital form is easy to copy, easy to transmit, making the enforcement of copyright law more difficult. As an increasing fraction of I.P. takes that form, we face the problem I like to describe as the death of copyright. If creators cannot control the use of what they create, how are they to get a sufficient reward to make it worth creating? It's an issue I have discussed here in the past, and also discuss at some length in the relevant chapter of Future Imperfect—available for purchase, but also webbed for free.

I recently came across one interesting example of a solution to that problem, hence this post. As I've mentioned, I spent last weekend at Westercon, a local sf convention. Like most cons, it had an art show. Being a relatively small con, most of the art was of a not very pretentious sort—I did not, for instance, notice the originals of the cover art for published books. The price range for most of it was between about $20, mostly prints and very small pieces, and $100.

The guests of honor at the con included the Foglios, the couple who produce Girl Genius, a very popular steampunk webcomic, and there was at least a moderate steampunk (alternate history, Victorian high tech) theme to the convention. The art show included the uncolored drawings for a number of frames of the webcomic, as well as at least one piece of unrelated art by Phil Foglio.

They were priced between a thousand and two thousand dollars each.

Phil Foglio is obviously a skilled artist, and one would expect his work to sell for substantially more than the work of the average sf semi-pro. But I suspect that the size of the gap reflects less that difference than the desire of the fans of the webcomic to possess a genuine piece of art associated with it. Which means that the creators of that particular piece of intellectual property can give away their digital creation online while making a significant amount of money selling associated non-digital creations in realspace.  And they can do it at essentially no cost to themselves, since the drawing has already been created in the process of producing the webcomic. That is one example of what I think of as the tie-in approach to dealing with the death of copyright—the same principle that lets me put books up on the web for free and make a significant amount from being paid to give public talks, an opportunity in part created by people reading my books.

How much of an income can the Foglios expect from that particular source? My younger son, a fan of Girl Genius, tells me that it updates three times a week. Suppose the Foglios sell two-thirds of the uncolored drawings—why uncolored I don't know, perhaps because the coloring is done in a later digital step, and once the drawing is being printed from a computer it loses its rarity value. Further suppose that after paying a commission to the con or other intermediary, they end up with a thousand dollars per drawing. That's an income of a hundred thousand dollars a year—not enough to make them rich, but enough to pay for a fair fraction of groceries, rent, and the like. And they have a variety of other tie-ins, including physical books based on the comic, to supplement that.

It's an interesting world.


Anonymous said...

I think the benefits of intellectual property are proportional to the scale of the capital investment to produce a good.

Things that require large groups of people and capital and coordination by a organizational structure require IP laws to make the venture possible.

So if there were absolutely no IP laws, there wouldn't be any good blockbuster high-budget movies, but there still would be independent, low budget movies.

Similarly with publishing, newspapers and magazines wouldn't exist, while books would (few authors, low capital).

Anonymous said...

That presupposes that a steady sale of the images reaches a steady stream of willing buyers at that price. That also supposes that Girl Genius continues, at a minimum, at it's current level of popularity. (That is, well known in a small circle.)

Not to mention that just because they were offered for a price does not mean they sold for that price, or even sold at all.

Chris Bogart said...

This suggests that novelists could go back to typewriters or handwriting, so they have something they can sell as the "original draft".

Steve said...

It seems like the best methods that embrace the decay of copyright seem to happen on a small level. The comic mentioned in your post is an example.

From a music perspective, the acceptance seems to be most notable in web labels which help artists promote their music through free downloads. Some have tried giving some music away while putting a price on (often better) other releases. I set up a label that keeps everything free, but runs off the ad revenue generated by those who view the pages.

Commissioned work seems to be on the rise as well, in the visual/single graphic art world, at least. Someone desires something in particular, finds someone that they think can create it for the most reasonable price, and they get exactly what they want. The finished product is seen by nearly everyone subscribed to the artist, but it isn't created for the sake of getting the most people to chip in for it as possible (which is more of a music approach than a visual art approach, though) or for popularity reasons.

Jonathan said...

I was amused by your comment that an income of a hundred thousand dollars a year is "enough to pay for a fair fraction of groceries, rent, and the like."

It certainly is. A hundred thousand dollars is approximately equivalent to the most I've ever earned in a year. And I think there are vast numbers of people in the world who are poorer than me.

Jonathan said...

The death of copyright is something that will happen or not, whatever we say about it. If it happens, people will adjust somehow.

It would definitely not stop creators from creating. Some of them do it only for money, but I think most of them do it because they have an urge to create. For example, my mother has written a play and three novels, without ever having tried to get them published. She never expected to make any money from them.

People already write free software, play free music, paint free paintings, etc.

The death of copyright would make some difference to the kind and quality of creative output, but certainly creative output would continue. And creators would still find ways of making money, albeit in some cases not as much money.

David Friedman said...

With regard to what a hundred thousand dollars will pay for ... .

I was indeed engaged in a certain amount of deliberate understatement. On the other hand, the Foglios are winners in a competition that a lot of other people participate in, and ending up with the income of moderately successful professional isn't all that great a win.

And on the third hand, I don't know how much art they sell at what price, or what other indirect income sources they have from their comic. My basic point was that a single identifiable source was of a significant order of magnitude in terms of the income a reasonably successful artist might expect.

TheVidra said...

I think Mr. Friedman was referring to 2011 dollars, hence one hundred thousand of those will not make someone rich :)

TheVidra said...

I always wondered if the same trend in music (loss of copyright protection, lowered royalties) would lead to more concerts and "connection" between the musicians and their fans. Is there any empirical study of this?

Jonathan said...

Yes, I take the point about the hundred thousand dollars. I was unable to restrain my amusement, but my comment was intended as light, not heavy.

Perhaps my writing style doesn't do light very well.

I do have the feeling that successful creators in the present system can end up significantly overpaid. What I mean is that, hypothetically, they may have been willing to create the same product for much less money.

And not always hypothetically. If often happens that someone creates a successful product out of the blue and is then amazed by the unexpected torrent of money that rains down upon him/her. I think immediately of the first Harry Potter book and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but there are many examples. These were products created without any expectation of great reward.

Jonathan said...

TheVidra: Yes, I imagine that the death of copyright would lead to more connection between creator and fans, if only because creators motivated mainly by money would drop out, and the creators who remained would probably have more interest in their fans.

Music concerts would tend to be more frequent because they'd become a more important source of income for musicians. And even a creator not primarily motivated by money is likely to welcome an income of some kind.

David Friedman said...

On the question of incentive to create I.P. ...

Clearly a lot of it gets created for non-pecuniary incentives. Someone has a story he wants to tell or wants other people to listen to. That's pretty much the case for my novels--I don't see them as a serious source of income.

On the other hand, people have a limited amount of time and effort available. If someone who turns out to be really good at writing novels can support himself by doing so, instead of having to work a day job and squeeze in the writing in bits of free time, you are likely to get more good novels. And there may well be some people who are good at writing novels but don't enjoy it enough to keep writing if they can't make a living at it.

A further point was raised in Albert25's post--some forms of I.P. are more expensive to produce than others. Even something like a movie might be produced for free via something along the lines of an open source project. But the "do it for fun and give away the result" approach works better for a novel than for a movie.

Anonymous said...

If creators cannot control the use of what they create, how are they to get a sufficient reward to make it worth creating?

If someone creates for monetary rewards, I doubt the value of his creations.

Jonathan said...

Anonymous: Your two paragraphs seem to express conflicting and contradictory points of view (although both are quite common).

Jonathan said...

The question of how much creators 'should' be paid is an interesting one, but in practice they get paid whatever the system currently in force pays them.

I'd say that the current system tends to overpay the most successful creators.

If copyright law is suddenly removed, payments would presumably go down for most creators. Anyone who felt underpaid would have the option of not participating, so we could assume that anyone who continued to create was not underpaid.

However, of course you're right that the latter system would tend to reduce the supply of good-quality and expensive-to-make products, and audiences might well regret this.

But I doubt that any rational decision will be made about should we have copyright or shouldn't we. If copyright becomes unenforceable for whatever reason, I suppose it will die regardless of the arguments for and against.

I feel that I could live happily enough in a world without copyright, but would it be a better world or a worse one, on balance? I don't claim to know.

It would make no difference to my own income. I've written many books and never received royalties for any of them: I'm paid for my working hours.

PirateFriedman said...

I was wondering how you guys felt about piracy as a noble act to bankrupt the patent lawyers and rent seekers who parasitically live off of IP?

Lex Spoon said...

A sufficiently strong police state can keep copyright from dying. I really hope, instead, that copyright as we know it dies out.

Like Jonathan, I have a hard time seeing what level of payment artists "should" receive. What is clearer to me is that whatever difference there is among different business models for the arts, it is smaller than what we lose by having more extensive oversight in our daily lives.

As a simple example, in order to enforce copyright law, it is increasingly necessary to implement controls over our personal electronics. Such controls greatly limit the ability of people to build interesting things out of electronics. So at best we are protecting art at the expense of craft.

Julien Couvreur said...

This is a form of freemium business model. A few users are paying enough so that the rest get it for free.

Kid said...

Economists Michele Boldrin and David Levine argue at great length that copyright and patents do not increase creative output in their book Against Intellectual Monopoly.

If anything, copyright and patents serve to encourage a 'lone genius' or 'superstar' kind of model, where, by virtue of tremendous work and brilliant insight, a giant leap is taken for makind. They significantly chill the innovation of the more incremental kind.

I am not convinced the death of copyright is anything to be worried about - in fact I welcome the culture where anyone can comment on, and build and improve upon, previous work. Free Software was a great idea.

All our ideas build upon previous work. The idea of a single soul taking a giant leap is misguided. All giant leaps are the product of many incremental innovations. Without copyright and patents, society will flourish in incremental innovation.

It is not obvious such a society would be immediately improved by chilling incremental innovation in exchange for better incentivizing large investments to make large leaps forward.

David Friedman said...

I know Boldrin and Levine, and read the book in manuscript, although not the final published version. I thought they offered a good deal of interesting historical evidence and argument, especially in the patent case.

But, at least at the stage I read it, the book struck me as rather onesided; I didn't think they were offering and answering the best arguments available against their position. I don't know if that was still true of the final version or not.

In any case, my interest is not in whether the death of copyright will or will not have terrible consequences or even be bad or good. It is in how, if copyright law becomes unenforceable, producers of digital I.P. will find other ways of getting rewarded, and what the consequences will be.

Richard said...

For centuries, the only way for musicians to be compensated was during live performances. For a brief period, technology was developed that allowed compensation for recorded performances. Then more technology was developed that essentially returned them to live performers. It will not be the end of music -- only the end of a technological windfall.

Jonathan said...

Richard: I agree with your basic argument and attitude, but I think musicians always had more options than charging for live performances.

For instance, they could charge for music lessons, or they could be taken on as long-term salaried employees by some organization or wealthy individual. Perhaps in some cases they could charge for composing music on request, and not just for performing it.

Marcel said...

Techdirt's Mike Masnick has a bunch of articles on the same idea: those who will be able to use the free, non-scarce part to gain fame and customers for the scarce (and thus non-free) part will thrive.

PirateFriedman said...

It just seems like hyperbole to say copyright is unenforceble. Copyright is less enforceable, right?

Jonathan said...

PirateFriedman: I don't think anyone's suggesting that copyright is unenforceable right now, although enforcement can be difficult and in some cases infeasible. We're speculating about the possibility that it may really become unenforceable in future.

PirateFriedman said...

Jonathan, I guess I could have clarified, I just don't see copyright becoming unenforceable.

I think there's a special case with music, its just too easy to steal. But in fact music sales have increased for the first time since 2004. So even the music industry is not going away.

People are still just a little bit afraid of going to prison or getting sued.

The only way that copyright could dissapear is if the state dissapeared. But then you might have large corporations that might enforce copyright by economic pressure. (So you want to copy cd's in your spare time? Then you will never work for any company within the Global MegaCorporation Consortium, etc).

Jonathan said...

Currently it's feasible for governments to pursue people who go in for large-scale unauthorized copying. Unless, perhaps, they do it in a country that doesn't care.

But ordinary people are copying things all the time to give to friends and relations, and I don't think they feel at all afraid or have any reason to feel afraid. It's really hard for governments to stop something that most people are doing. Like drinking alcohol, for instance...

I don't think music is really a special case. It can be distributed over the Internet, but then so can many other creations. The most special thing about music is that it's been traditionally distributed on CDs without copy protection. Breaking copy-protection schemes is feasible, but tends to be difficult for the ordinary person (as intended).

Ari said...

Btw Mr. Friedman, have you read Boldrin's and Levine's book?

David Friedman said...


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I read the Boldrin and Levine book in manuscript, have not read the final published version.

Liberty Joe said...

Copyright is government tyranny and theft.

By what fundamental right does government restrict our ability to transfer and copy strings of 1's and 0's?