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'Oppressive' UK copyright law: More cobblers from IP quangos

Write out 100 times, this has nothing to do with consumer rights

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Creating for free for the greater good - what could possibly go wrong?

Originally George Soros endorsed the view of his hero Karl Popper that open societies are underpinned by economic liberty. Soros saw markets, rather than central stage managing, as the best way to achieve this. And markets are founded on property rights.

If you take away economic freedom from individuals, Soros argued, society suffers. The Open Society Institute was founded to promote such ideas. It's very different today.

Via A2K, his Open Society Institute campaigns for the removal of economic liberties, and the destruction of markets, arguing that this is necessary for the greater good. But for an organisation that devotes much of its time agonising about "sustainability", this is a very odd position to take.

Long-term sustainability is entirely missing from its economic analysis. We know that intensive exploitation of a natural resource leads to short-term gains for consumers. A lake that's full of fish today may attract lots of fishing boats, leading to falling prices and an abundance of fish on the market. But over-fishing may also deplete the ability of the resource to renew itself, destroying its value in the long-run.

In the same way, weakening economic incentives today, in order to make more stuff available for free, is equally short-sighted.

Digital technology has certainly changed a lot: the ability to effectively control copies of a work, for example. But it hasn't changed basic human motivations or needs. It hasn't added more hours of leisure time to a day. It hasn't created a new magical currency that creators can conjure out of thin air. It hasn't changed the idea that if we want more good stuff (as opposed to say, Wikipedia or home blooper videos), it's a good idea to reward people.

What the campaigners find themselves pushing for isn't "consumer rights", it's the destruction of the ability of creators' and innovators' ability to seek market-based remuneration. That's now an anachronism, they argue.

If the incentives are removed, A2K would insist, people may still create, donating the fruits of their labour to the greater good out of altruism. If property rights are removed, as they advocate, they'll have little choice over the matter anyway.

While collectivising rights naturally appeals to people who favour collective solutions anyway, what is strange is that normally stalwart defenders of markets forget about them.

To illustrate how far this "balance" argument has skewed public discourse, there's a fascinating debate online between Google's corporate lawyer William Patry and a libertarian lawyer called Andrei Mincov. It's a feisty exchange, and both score some important points. Patry favours collectivisation and Mincov individual rights. But both essentially agree on the same thing: discussing IP in terms of a "balance" between consumers and creators is a false one.

As Mincov puts it: "The reason I respect Patry’s position so much is that he understands that the balance model is nonsensical."

Copyright is simply an economic incentive, founded on a temporary exclusive property right. It's a business stimulus, designed to create monetary exchanges and rewards. It has nothing to do with consumer rights.

The Soros institute's Vera Franz boasts about confusing the public. "The biggest accomplishment is that [A2K] managed to turn a seemingly technocratic issue — copyright and patents — into a political one," she said, "that people from all walks of life started to care deeply about."

They may care even more deeply if they realised that their offspring will not have the economic liberty to be rewarded for their talents, which we can still enjoy today.

Unfortunately for the creative industries, there's money and prestige to be gained from promoting this baffling child-like view. The funds that cascade down from Soros' Open Society Initiative into campaigns like A2K, or from the EU into NGOs like Consumer International, or even from UK taxpayers into quangos like Consumer Focus, all perpetuate the myth that there's a 'balance': that we'll be richer if creators are poorer, we'll have a more-free society if we have fewer individual rights, and that in the long-term, destroying rewards for creators is both desirable and 'sustainable'.

Replacing the false view of IP as some kind of "balance" with one of long-term ecology may ultimately be more useful to policymakers. ®

Bootnote

For the money trail, see our report on last year's IP Watchlist.

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