Copyrights (and patents), capitalism and creative progress
May 23, 2007
I’ve been following the debate surrounding this op-ed by Mark Helprin. Helprin, who keeps getting referred to as a sci-fi writer but not as a fellow at the conservative Claremont Institute, basically makes the claim that not only are copyrights a good thing, but they should be extended to last perpetually. As in, forever.
There’s been a spirited rebuttal posted at this wiki where they make several valid points, including Helprin’s mistaken understanding of public goods. The main point, however, that copyrights are something desirable and good, is never questioned. Certainly not by Helprin, and not by the wiki (at least last time I checked).
We’ve grown up in a society that takes copyrights and patents for granted without much consideration to the underlying assumptions of this area of law. The argument for why ideas, inventions, and works of art should be protected has primarily been championed by economists like Joel Mokyr who make the argument that these systems allow for increased economic growth based off the assumption that people are more likely to innovate if they can realize profits for their work.
The problem with this assumption, however, is the way modern copyright and patent law is enforced. First, the law assumes that the inventors or creators retain control of their properties. This is seldom the case in today’s world of corporations; highly profitable properties are often sold off by their creators or created under the auspices of a large corporation that retains the rights to ideas or concepts invented by their employees. In both of these cases, the legal copyright or patent holder is not the creator. This doesn’t really matter under a law that allows them to reap the benefits. Furthermore, attempts to extend benefits (now at a duration of the lifetime of creator plus 70 years for copyrights in the US) are doing nothing to stimulate invention for the holder since the holder isn’t creating anything, merely making profit off someone else’s work.
Second, and more worrying, is that the way these laws are applied has the exact opposite effect. Both major coporations (most notably everyone’s favorite bogeyman Microsoft) and the government are now using copyright and patent law to inhibit creativity and stop innovators from building on prior ideas or using copyright and patent law to restrict speech. Copyright and patent law have become a big stick used by the haves to stifle the creativity and progress of the have-nots. Even delusional free-marketeers can see that this regime only really benefits those already holding power and circumvents any fantasy of a “free market.”
So why should this matter to us, as anarcho-transhumanists? Aside from the obvious concerns over innovation and free speech, we have to remember that most computer code is covered under copyright law, so restrictions on the ability to build off of another’s code is impacted by these laws–in a way that something like a novel or painting is not. Second, recent attempts at patenting portions of genetic codes or attempts to lock vital life-saving medical procedures or drugs into long-term exclusive-use schemes that keep the prices artificially high. In effect trading potential lives for short term profit. It also, as mentioned above, retards progress by placing monopoly profits before advancement. Sure you can have that new AIDS vaccine — after the patent on this one expires.
In a world that is trying to accelerate the pace of change, copyright and patent laws seek to impose a slowdown on this process. What’s worse is that these laws seem only to be moving in one direction, towards longer durations and more restrictive uses. There are no (serious) calls to limit patents and copyrights or appeals to the public good. This further commodification of knowledge and retarding of progress for profit is something we should oppose as both anarchists and transhumanists.