Internet Piracy is Not the Problem: It's Time To Eliminate Intellectual Property

Internet piracy is widely practiced today. According to the Economist, recorded music sales fell by 8% in 2007 alone, and industry experts blamed most of the decline on illegal downloading. Other forms of media like computer software and e-books have also seen similar increases in illegal sharing in recent years. The effected industries have naturally gone on the attack, claiming the practice harms the people who create the illegally downloaded content and stifles innovation. The effort to pass the Stop Internet Piracy Act (SOPA) is the latest example of this blowback. 

But despite these claims, internet piracy doesn't punish creators and artists. In fact, it is the legal war against consumers that has slowed innovation in the arts, and it's time we ended it. 

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, this point is easily demonstrated. If piracy was bringing so many forms of creativity crashing down, we would see it manifested as a decline in the amount of music, literature and software being produced. But we don't. Economists Michele Boldrin and Michael Levine conducted an interesting experiment in this regard, reported in their book Against Intellectual Monopoly. They found that the works of author Edgar Rice Burroughs that are in the public domain, and thus lack copyright protection, are widely available on Amazon and from most booksellers, yet the works still "protected" by the intellectual property laws are out of print. This is a common occurrence, too. 

As economics writer Jeffrey Tucker explains, "Large swaths of the literary output of the last 50 years, for example, now lay buried in the vaults of large publishers who neither print them nor permit them to be printed absent some huge fee; nor will they return rights to the author. Nor will the publishers allow them to be posted. Getting them back in print is a very expensive and time-consuming operation."

The same may be true of video game publishing as well. 2D Boy, the developer of a popular game called World of Goofound that refusing to fight piracy of their product didn't harm sales. In a blog post following the games release the company said that the game was pirated almost as much as titles that contain anti-piracy measures. In other words, people willing to pirate software aren't necessarily the same people willing to buy it. This conclusion was confirmed by a simple experiment 2D Boy ran. To celebrate the one year anniversary of the game's release, the publisher made it available for whatever price gamers were willing to pay - even for free. In a survey conducted after this experiment, the company found that people were still willing to pay for the opportunity to play, despite that they weren't required to. 

Two examples aren't necessarily enough to demonstrate the inanity of Intellectual property laws, but the professional literature on this subject goes a long way in confirming the point. As Intellectual Property Lawyer Stephen Kinsella points out, "...it is striking that there seems to be no empirical studies or analyses providing conclusive evidence that an IP [intellectual property] system is indeed worth the cost. Every study I have ever seen is either neutral or ambivalent, or ends up condemning part or all of IP systems."    

What all this should make very clear is that the case against piracy is fundamentally flawed. Knowing that their work will be pirated, multitudes of talented people continue producing the art we all enjoy. Why? Because they can still make money doing it. 

But piracy does threaten the bottom lines of big music labels and publishing houses. Interestingly, these are the forces behind legislation like SOPA, organizations that thrive on collecting royalties but not producing anything themselves. Often in the music industry, for example, it's the musicians themselves who are stunted by copyright protection. As Tucker points out, it is not the musician who owns the songs, but the record label, who graciously allows the band or artist to perform the music publicly. This is why so many musicians have avoided record contracts entirely in recent years. 

If we really want to spur creativity, as well as protect our privacy and free speech, we should eliminate all forms of Intellectual Property and the laws designed to protect it. Creators should certainly be credited for the works they produce, and for that purpose creative commons licenses have been devised. But any other form of legal restriction on consumers is pointless and often harmful.

Photo Credit: Mataparda