I hear people occasionally calling for the abolition of copyright. Often they use the phrase ‘imaginary property’ to show their contempt for the idea. I have often debated with these people, and found it very frustrating. Many times, I am lectured on economics by them, and have them explain marginal cost to me, on the (false) assumption that price should equal marginal cost in the long term. (It doesn’t, because fixed costs must be repaid to make the enterprise worthwhile, and normal proft must be factored in as a reward for entrepreneurial risk). Anyway…. when debating it recently a great example struck me as to why copyright not only makes sense, but will continue to work even without scarcity.
Money is the answer. Money is (just like copyright) a totally artificial construct. It’s a relatively recent invention in human terms, if you count early stone age man., and not all tribal societies even have it. It is a product of our technological society. Once you live in a grouping where you don’t know bob from dave, you need a way of knowing who has done what and who owes who what. Enter money!
A long time ago, we used precious metals as money, gold and silver and bronze coins. And even after we started to introduce paper money, we still had the money ‘backed by gold‘. You could, at any point, exchange the pieces of paper for gold. The transition was pretty smooth, and people soon went from valuing the pieces of paper just like they did the finite precious gold.
Now the obvious problem is that it is possible to just print money. And that’s what we do. It’s how it’s made. We don’t mine for gold any more, we just switch on the printing press. And very very naive governments sometimes try and do exactly that to solve problems. Now and school kid will tell you that printing money is a disaster because it leads to inflation (the money itself becomes valueless). And any idiot will realise that for a society with money to function, we have to have incredibly strong penalties against forgery, and go to great lengths to make it impossible. If tomorrow, someone found a way to print perfect, usable $100 bills, The economy would quickly fall apart.
Now of course, the government doesn’t let that happen. The notes are made using special paper from a restricted supply, the inks are also special. Holograms are embedded into the notes, and a magnetic strip is added. Special combinations of characters are added that photocopiers refuse to print…
You can see where I’m going by now. These are all methods of DRM. They are ways to ensure that you can’t make copies of your money. And they work, no doubt after huge expense and careful policing. Now think about the implications of this… Being able to copy adobe photoshop is worth a few hundred dollars. Being able to copy all music and games in their entirety is worth maybe a few thousand dollars a month from the advertising on your torrent site. A million dollars a year at most. Being able to copy dollar bills is worth billions, maybe tens of billions, maybe hundreds.
And yet we are constantly told that the battle that the pro-copyright lobby fights is unwinnable and doomed, despite the fact that their situation is a thousand times easier than the battle governments fight to control the integrity of their money supply. The DRM on money works, and works practically 100%, because of two reasons:
1) The DRM on a dollar bill does not vaguely inconvenience the user of the money in any way at all. and
2) Everyone understands and accepts that the government has to stop people being able to copy money.
Now one day, maybe, 1) will get fixed, I have no idea how, and right now its definitely not fixed, which is why I agree with the pirates and the anti-DRM lobby that DRM is more trouble than it’s worth. However, I do believe that we need to address 2) at some stage. I cannot see the reason why digital goods IP and money are not equal in this regard. They both are ways of ensuring value is fixed for something that in technical terms can be produced at almost zero cost (printing presses are pretty cheap, even secure ones).
I think this is a pretty strong argument, but never see it mentioned anywhere. Am I missing something really obvious?
(For anyone thinking this is a very different POV to earlier posts, I still stand by all my piracy response decisions regarding demos, pricing and DRM, but am still a firm believer in copyright. I understand the frustrations and justifications behind piracy, but I believe 100% that the producers o digital goods must be fairly compensated for their work.)