Economists Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf have just released a new Harvard Business School working paper called File Sharing and Copyright that raises some important points about file sharing, copyright, and the net benefits to society.
Mike Masnick of Techdirt adds:
To understand the key points made by the paper, you need to understand the purpose of copyright — something that many people are confused about. It’s always been about creating incentives to create new works. Copyright maximalists and defenders of strengthening copyright laws always suggest that without copyright, there would be much less creative output, because there would be much less incentive to create. History has shown that to be false. If you look back at the age when all creative output had to be registered to be covered by copyright, studies showed that only a very small fraction of content creators even bothered, because copyright wasn’t the incentive. It’s only now, when copyright is automatic, that people seem to think that copyright is somehow necessary.
There are many who disagree, but the study appears to raise interesting issues regarding the benefit to society of copyright protections. As Mike Masnick writes above, copyright is about balancing benefits (incentives to create with the benefits of distribution). Thus, the United States Constitution, in granting to Congress the power to regulate patents and copyrights, says that the point is to
To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.
In other words, although we consider copyrights and patents to be property, it is property that functions differently than many conceptualize. It explicitly lasts “for limited times,” for example (although other forms of property also may be limited – law students learn early on that property is a “bundle of rights,” not some kind of absolute grant).
I am not convinced that eliminating copyright is the best approach, even if this study suggests that file sharing may actually benefit creators. Instead, I think perhaps a better balance of rights may be appropriate, and may even benefit creators (musicians, authors, etc.) over the current regime, which tends to benefit current owners of intellectual property (labels, publishers, etc.). But I remain open to exactly what that balance should look like, and studies like this help to provide evidence for which approaches might be better than others.