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Kitty would like to be paid - By Kitty Miv, Editor

Kitty Miv, Editor
26 January, 2012

It's simple, isn't it? If you write a poem and I rip it off without paying you for it, I should be slung into outer darkness and the keys thrown away.

Um, well, perhaps it's not quite as simple as that. Certainly governments aren't finding it easy. The European Union was talking about a new IP (intellectual property) regime this week, with one eye cast warily on the travails of the US Congress, which is faced with a veritable Gordian knot as it tries to create a regime to protect IP on the Internet.

Copyright, to use one over-simplified word to represent a creator's right to be paid for her IP, is rather a modern invention, certainly in terms of its international enforcement. Prior to the invention of printing, the problem hardly existed. Copies were expensive to make, and if you had one, there was no mechanism or concept of ownership to prevent you from using it.

Once printing existed, which both created an audience for artistic works and the means of supplying it, monarchs sometimes sold or gave 'privileges', which amounted to a (strictly territorial) right to profit from a piece of music, work of art, book or invention. But this was very much the exception rather than the rule. Until the 19th century, creators had to look to their own interests: composers jealously guarded their orchestral parts, and often travelled immense distances in order to supervize (and earn from) representations of their works. Paginini famously refused to write down most of his compositions, and as a result many of them died with him.

It's reasonable to see the development of copyright law, and the international conventions which support it, as being an early example of, and response to globalization; and the Internet as being merely another step along the same path. The problem always being how the consumer of an intellectual good should recompense the creator of that good when there is no commercial, personal or legal link between the two of them.

Presumably rightly, our society has decided that it is important to encourage creation, and that we should therefore reward it. But on the other hand, printing and its more modern incarnations have immeasureably widened access to culture and intellectuality on the part of people in general, which is also a good thing, and it is not necessarily the best idea to put financial or legal roadblocks in the way of this diffusion of knowledge.

The onward march of creator-protection has not been without its critics. When the normal term of European copyright was extended from fifty years to seventy years in the 1990s, there was fierce argument over the relative importance of rewarding a creator's heirs as against allowing access to art-works for people who can't afford to go to up-market bookshops or concerts.

The popularizers lost on that occasion, but Pirate Bay has more than made up for it.

Governments, needless to say, are always in favour of secrecy, which we may equate to copyright. They never knowingly and willingly increase the amount of information available to people, unless of course they are trying to collect taxes. So it's not surprising that legislators in the US have come to blows with the consumers and the champions of open access, and that parallel confrontations are taking place in Europe.

There are no easy answers. It is probably true that the corporate behemoths which are trying to preserve their income streams have been allowed to go too far in terms of restricting access to content; they were slow to recognize or respond to new media, and they deserve to suffer as a result. The problem is that the creators are suffering along with them.

It is time for another step towards globalization to match the Geneva Convention. There needs to be a system which marries the use of content to its creation in a way that neither spies on the users of content nor imposes artificial pricing on consumption. The world-wide-web itself is an example of a government-free commercially-based information exchange; now that there is plenty of bandwidth around, we need an equivalent which would incorporate secure 'common carrier' content storage and delivery facilities along with a market-based price discovery system. Only when that is in place will there be a consensus against the pirates. And it may not be that far off.

Ciao, Kitty


About the Author

Kitty Miv, Editor

Kitty was born in Argentina in 1960 to a Scottish cattle rancher and his Argentine wife. Educated in Edinburgh and at Princeton, Kitty worked for the World Bank as an economist, where she met and married an emigre Iranian banker. During her time with the Bank, Kitty worked in a number of emerging markets, including a spell in the ex-USSR as a Transition Economies Team Leader. Kitty is now a consultant in Brussels and has free-lance writing relationships with a number of prominent economic publications. kitty@lowtax.net


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