It’s OK everyone, turns out everything’s fine

I went to an interesting talk today. Mike Masnick, founder of Techdirt, was presenting his report “The Sky is Rising”. The report says, in short, that based on analysis of “the numbers”, the market and opportunity for content and entertainment is growing. “We’re living through an incredible period of abundance and opportunity, with more people producing more content and more money being made than ever before” as the report puts it.

The predictions of doom often heard are just the “legacy” entertainment industry trying to cling to the past, according to Masnick, whose report suggests something very different.

I hope the report is right because I think the important thing is that the opportunity gets bigger overall and a bigger creative sector is able to invest more in making more content products to serve an expanding market – in other words exactly what Masnick says is happening. We should worry less about whether the future winners are the same as the past. I haven’t read the report because I hadn’t heard of it before today but I will and you should. I guess time will tell if it’s right.

The interesting bit for me was that the talk was billed as being about copyright but Mike didn’t really address that to begin with. I was interested in what copyright had to do with it – after all copyright enables you to decide who can use your stuff, it doesn’t tell you what you should decide. It lets you to choose your business model rather than forcing one upon you. On that basis it would be logical to assume Masnick is a supporter of the copyright status quo.

The answer was a bit confusing (but it’s clear at least that while he supports copyright he doesn’t do so wholeheartedly or uncritically).

Masnick used the example of VCRs in the 1970s as an example of an attempt to stifle innovation (the VCR) by the incumbent industries (the MPAA) using copyright law as their weapon, and the great opportunity that opened up to the movie industry as a result of losing that case.

He went on to talk about free speech being threatened by copyright when sites containing infringing content alongside non-infringing content are closed down. Along the way he mentioned a site which closed when it was sued but later, after it was shuttered, went on to win its case(I think he said it was called Veoh but that one seems to be alive and well). He also mentioned the availability of out-of-copyright books on Amazon (relatively high) versus in-copyright but very old books (relatively low).

I think he was trying to say that copyright law at present is too restrictive, and that where it is loosened good things happen, although he strayed from his preference for “evidence based policy” with the anecdotal answers he gave – and of course there are many similar anecdotes on the other side of the argument. To be fair, trying to prove a negative is hard and so finding evidence that things would be better or worse in a different environment is hard.

Perhaps I’ll find a fuller answer in his evidence-based report. However, it struck me that a pretty good answer had already been presented by him earlier in his talk.

According to him, everything is on an upward curve. Opportunities for creators, consumer spending, consumer choice, the ease with which someone can become a professional creator, the amount of content produced and so on. The problems are the nice ones to have – discovering content in this flood of choice and so on. If that’s true – and I really hope it is, even it conflicts with what I see – it’s great news and, more importantly, isn’t it also evidence that copyright law isn’t acting as a barrier to all these innovative new players?

Proving a positive is so much better than speculating about negatives, and on the basis of what Masnick told us it would seem he has already done so. Everything in the garden, according to him, is already rosy. So rather than worry about all the imagined opportunities that copyright supposedly restricts entrepreneurs from pursuing, shouldn’t we be thinking about the bigger market he says it has created and thinking up ways to exploit it and grow it still further?


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. robcumberland,

    I have increasingly found Masnick a bit confusing, but to be fair that’s as much to do with what I think as what he thinks. I agree with the abundance part of his argument, and I also agree with his view of the heavy-handed use of IP rights by various commercial interests. What I don’t agree with is that the fault lies in the rights themselves. I also see Creative Commons (for example) for what it is – a set of copyrights – rather than an alternative to them.

    It seems to me a false choice is presented by Masnick (and others on his side of the argument) between the freedom of technology and the constraints of commerce. And for their part the commercial interests who argue against Masnick and in favour of draconian enforcement play along (in my view).

    Where I sit – as one of many artists and consumers – I find neither camp convincing and it seems unfortunate their discourse has dominated and polarised the debate. Governments are still wrestling with solutions for the modern IP world but they have largely been informed by these two vested interests who represent neither creators or consumers.

    I am encouraged in recent months that a copyright lobby is becoming more assertive and hopeful that the debate can be broadened to cover the interests of society rather than simply the agenda of the technologists (Masnick) and their opponents: big music, big cinema and big media.

    • I agree that a polarised argument is unhelpful and the fact that it has become that way is a sign of how perverted the argument has become. Embarrassingly I hadn’t heard of Masnick or his report before the talk. I think it’s appealingly counter-intuitive and if it were true it would be encouraging, my problem with the talk (and I still haven’t read the full report yet) was that it was just unconvincing. He claimed to offer an evidence-based approach to cutting through to the real issues but then when it comes to evidence to support many assertions he retreated to anecdotal and thinkly argued ideas. So the credibility of the whole thing was undermined for me. Of course I don’t pretend to be neutral: the evidence of my own experience also disagrees with Masnick so I guess I’m always going to go into a talk like that as a sceptic.

      I also agree that the problem isn’t caused by the rights themselves (anybody can choose to give their rights away, and Creative Commons is an over-complex way of doing so if they want, but they can’t do the opposite – take possession of them – without the law helping). I also agree that some approached by the IP industry have been unhelpful but they are also a distraction from the real issue. True change will be driven by opportunity: as soon as it’s possible to make real money from the audiences to be found online you can be sure that the emphasis will shift from enforcement to engagement, you can also be sure that a load of new content innovators and entrepreneurs will spring up and give the big media companies a real challenge.

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