IP Policy Is About Customers, Not Geek vs Artist Pissing Matches

A blog about business and economics.
May 29 2012 4:58 PM

IP Policy Is About Customers, Not Geek vs Artist Pissing Matches

French company Nelyo introduced the world's smallest Ipod docking speaker system in hall 15 at the world's biggest high-tech fair, the CeBIT, on March 6, 2012 in Hanover, central Germany.

Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

I normally tune out articles about intellectual property policy that involve use of the term "the digerati" but a reader asked what I thought about this piece by David Lowery (of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker fame) so I waded through an awful lot of words.

And the thing about the piece is that for such a long article on the subject of music, the internet, digitial technology, shifting business models, and so forth it didn't say anything whatsoever about the consumer experience. The article is instead framed around a financial clash—and in some ways even more fundamentally a cultural clash—between artists and "the digerati" all framed in a heavily moralized manner. What's missing from this is the actual point of intellectual property policy, namely to create an environment in which the audience has ample works to enjoy.


Since people invariably end up accusing me of talking my book here, let's forget about music. Let's talk about writing. I'm a professional producer of copyrighted writing. So is my father. So was his father before him. And so was his mother. Two of my uncles have written books. And the Internet has very much been a mixed bag for writers. Lots of upsides, yes. But word-rates for journalists have totally collapsed. It's not clear what'll become of the book publishing industry. We've got widespread immiseration. We've got a lot of annoyance at "aggregation" business models, a lot of competition from hobbyists who are working for free, and a fair amount of websites just straight-up illegally scrubbing content off other sites and stealing it. It's a mess.


You can't credibly say that someone who wanted to read something interesting was better off in 1982 than in 2012. That's particularly true if you posit that the "someone" in question is sitting in a house near San Antonio rather than a college campus or New York City. You can read newspapers from around the world. You can read academics discussing their work and its relevance to the issues of the day. You can order any book in print to be delivered to your door in days, and many books will digitally appear within minutes if you want them to. For people who like to read, life has never been better. And that's what policy should be concerning itself with. It's not that income streams for authors or content distributors is irrelevant. Business models are very relevant. But the policy question is whether business models are adequately serving the needs of consumers. And when it comes to writing, I think they clearly are.

Is music different?

If anything, I think it's a stronger case. I basically never see anyone even attempt to argue that digitial technology has made it harder for music fans to listen to a wide array of appealing tunes, or to argue that stronger IP rights or a increased IP enforcement will increase our degree of musical plenty. Now large-scale commercial copying very possibly might have this effect but that is (rightly) illegal under the status quo and the rule against it is reasonably well-enforced. Beyond that, we're living in an era of unprecedented musical plenty so there's no problem for IP policy changes to solve.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.



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