Copyright shapes creation; it doesn’t drive it

I’m only now getting around to Peter Nowak’s provocative post (and its follow-up) about living in a world without copyright. One of the commentators wonders what this would do for creation:

“Sure, people will create without IP law, but why would they go through the cost and expense of producing and promoting it?”

It’s a good question that gets at the main reason why people support copyright: The comment recognizes that the urge to create is inherent in everyone, but that the market (it seems) would collapse without copyright.

This is a question for economists. And I think the key point to keep in mind is that while copyright and other laws shape creation and the market in creative works, they don’t drive them.

On the necessity of copyright: Economists Michele Boldrin and David K Levine argue in Against Intellectual Monopoly (free [legit] book!) that creators would still have the ability to profit from creation even in the absence of copyright. There are other ways to make money from art than the sale of copies.

Now (and this is a very important point), this isn’t to say that artists would be better off without copyright, only that the way the market worked would be different. Most likely some would be better off; some would be worse off. Some things that get created today would probably become rarer, while new forms of creation would come into existence.

In his recent (fantastic) book How Music Works, David Byrne makes this point with respect to licensing fees for music samples. These high fees mean that it would be way too expensive to create a masterpiece like the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique today. However, these fees didn’t stamp out creativity: Artists responded by creating their own beats, which they can now sell on sites like Beatport. So the rules governing the music market led to a loss of one art form but also to the birth of another. Are we better or worse off because of this change? It’s in the ear of the listener.

Nowak is right to argue that a world without copyright is possible. Is it likely? Who knows? The market in creative works, like all markets, will always be subject to some form of regulation, by definition. But it doesn’t have to be regulated by copyright.

No matter the type of regulation, it’s certain that creation, for fun and profit, will continue because creativity is shaped by market rules; it isn’t driven by them.

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