How do we know copyright is working?

I have spent a working lifetime sitting on one side of the copyright debate – broadly the “copyright is good” side. I have also, latterly, spent a lot of time listening to people telling me why Im wrong, why I am a dinosaur who cant let go of the past.

Obviously I have spent my career being driven by vested interests – I have worked for companies which are strongly dependent on copyright. So when I have been defending copyright I have also been defending their interests and my own job.

Equally obviously, many if not most of the people on the other side of the debate have vested interests of their own. Search engines and aggregators, academics, thinkers and would-be futurists – even newspaper editors, sometimes – have their own reasons for predicting or relishing the imminent demise of the copyright-based business model.

But what if we step back from both sides of the various vested interests and try to think about what we want, as a society, from copyright. Ignoring the commercial interests, what as an ordinary person can be regarded as a good thing? Perhaps then well have a new perspective from which to consider the polarised opinions being so freely touted.

I had a go at this for a talk I did towards the end of last year. I came up with a list of about fifteen signs that copyright is working well which I managed to distill down to three pithy ones: diversity, investment and reward.

Diversity. A diverse and growing ecosystem of content and creators, leading to a large and increasing choice for consumers, greater access to knowledge and effective and increasing competition for audiences.

Investment. A growing investment of time and money in creating content, products and innovative new ideas which effectively address the needs of the market. Risk-taking by investors and creators, new players entering the market, and a diversification of business models.

Thirdly, and perhaps most all encompassingly, the best and most popular content to be recognised and rewarded. The possibility for big winners to emerge, adaptable, clever companies and creators winning out over slower, less nimble players and not just by appropriating their raw materials from elsewhere.

The reason I think these three things particularly matter is because of the most important outcome of all: access to knowledge and creativity.

Its a good thing if people in general have wide access to the maximum amount of other peoples output and intellect – as well being educational it is the engine of culture and of inspiration and that is the central purpose for which copyright was devised. We are entertained, informed and enriched by other peoples creativity and ensuring that continues has traditionally been the central public good which copyright law seeks to promote.

So: I think a key sign of copyright working well is that lots of people are producing lots of output, and the most popular are the most successful (in whatever terms they judge success – which may or may not be financial).

Am I right about desirable outcomes? If I am, then it provides an interesting backdrop to the debate about if and how copyright needs to change in the internet era. If not, what should they be?

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