Alternative to IP rights?
January 2, 2007 2:47 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone written about what a world without (or with very limited) intellectual property rights would be like? Alternatively, are there other models for encouraging creativity without IP rights?

There has been a lot of resentment towards the big content producers like the RIAA and MPAA regarding their enforcement of copyright. How do the (key) people who resent the Napster and Grokster decisions envisage creators making a living? Would we have all the technology and entertainment choice now, if it weren't for IP rights? Interested in what has been written about this. I'm familiar with some of Lessig's work but I am not sure he actually paints a realistic alternative?
posted by vizsla to Technology (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Has anyone written about what a world without (or with very limited) intellectual property rights would be like

Marx and Engels?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:31 AM on January 2, 2007

Answering the question: It's a current theme in SF... you could try the earlier parts of cstross's Accelerando. Cory Doctorow won't shut up about this stuff, either. In fact, a trawl through boingboing's archives might net a bunch of useful links.

Other models... all-you-can-eat for corporate media, the tipjar for the indies, and "the real money's in touring" for the hopeless optimists.

Not answering the question: If you want a personal opinion, ease of copying means that the value of each copy tends towards zero, but it never quite reaches zero. If outside forces have driven the price per copy to 5 cents, the real question is how to complete a 5 cent transaction economically, not how to drive the price back up to $18.

The obvious way is to aggregate a whole bunch of transactions together - thus we'll see media move to an all-you-can-eat model - access to 1 million hours of programming, just $10 per month via your cable box. At that point, keeping your own local copy isn't worth the effort, and the whole IP/copy/no copy thing is moot.

Although we get some nice long-tail side effects with this model, I think they will apply to old content, not new indie content - the little guy is locked out of this model just as easily as the current one.
posted by Leon at 3:47 AM on January 2, 2007

"Melancholy Elephants" by Spider Robinson, although he comes at it from the opposite direction.

There are several people who argue against the term (Richard Stallman, Stephan Kinsella). Even using the term "IP" can be construed as buying into a specific way of viewing creative production.

Negativland has a whole bunch of links on the issue. So does Wikipedia, for that matter.
posted by QIbHom at 3:48 AM on January 2, 2007

One regime that picks up where free-market ownership of intellectual property leaves off is le droit moral, an idea lifted straight from the French Enlightenment. In the US, moral rights are protected in two key ways. The Visual Artists Rights Act, among other things, protects the artist's right to receive credit for her work and allows some post-sale control over display, destruction, and alteration. Article 6bis of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works offers similar protection to a broader array of "literary and artistic works." The treaty has the force of law here in the US but the agreement delegates enforcement responsibilities to its signatories.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 3:57 AM on January 2, 2007

Which IP rights, just music for downloading or the broader panoply of rights, patent, trademark, other copyright, trade secrets? A world without these rights would be rather chaotic. Take trademark rights for example. One could set up shop selling putrid cola and place it into bottles that looked exactly like Coca Cola. The consumer is hurt as much as the trademark holder. The pendulum may have swung a little too far in the direction of the IP right holders with excessively long copyright terms, overly broad trademark dilution laws, etc. Scaling back provides a solution; elimination provides a different set of problems.
posted by caddis at 4:22 AM on January 2, 2007

You might want to find stories about the proposed "gift culture." Alternately, look for something really dystopian about IP rights, like Jeter's Noir. Mind you, I think that working without IP rights is one of those boundlessly optimistic things like pure communism: it'd work great if people were angels. SF hasn't looked very hard at that yet, though.
posted by adipocere at 7:08 AM on January 2, 2007

Tons of real-world applications here:
posted by Monkey0nCrack at 7:24 AM on January 2, 2007

Some have suggested Nollywood - the Nigerian movie industry - as an example of creativity with very limited IP.

"The Nigerian film industry is the third largest in the world and is worth about $200 million in Nigeria, not including foreign sales making it the 3rd in revenues in the world after the US and India. And most interestingly: this industry was developed without the aid of strict copyright enforcement."

On the other hand: "Balogun noted that no films had been produced on celluloid in Nigeria in last two decades. "The truth is that Nigerian films are not of sufficient quality," he said. The local industry is now dominated by production for home videos on video tapes. (...) As Balogun noted, there are no cinema houses in a place like Lagos, for instance. This means that a film producer does not have a place where he can introduce his film to the public and take gate fees.

Instead, a producer distributes his film through traders - at Idumota market, in Lagos, for instance - on a "sale or return " basis. The producer takes his video tapes to the seller and returns to him several days later to collect money for tapes sold, and takes with him those not sold."

"Right now copyright plays very little part in "Nollywood", Nigeria’s cinema industry. Soon after films are released – they’re released on video, not celluloid – they are copied. And there are no returns on that. The marketers make money back from their initial outlay to have the movie made, but there is no further trickle down to the producers, to the creators. Legislation is no good unless it’s enforced. This is a concern for those of us working, trying to build a sustainable creative industry in Nigeria."
posted by iviken at 7:50 AM on January 2, 2007

First, I don't think you are as familiar with Lessig's work as you think you are. Lessig definately does not want to do away with copyright or other IP laws. Lessig seems to be mostly concerned with the 99.99% of our cultural and artistic heritage that isn't available at any price because of the very, very small percentage of works that are still commercially viable.

Second, people are naturally creative. You don't need to do anything to encourage that. In fact, I'm pretty hard pressed to think of what you might do to discourage people from creating.

As to your question about how would creators make a living, there are many ways. Some of them have been touched upon upthread. But, how do bottled water companies manage to sell water in a world where you can turn on the tap pretty much anywhere for free. Guarantees of quality, convenience, consistency. How do waiters manage to make most of their salary in tips when patrons could simply get up and walk out without tipping? Social pressure and custom. Feelings of generosity or guilt or gratitude.
posted by willnot at 8:30 AM on January 2, 2007

My $.02: I'm pretty extreme about this, but I'd like to see ZERO artistic ownership allowed. In other words, if you create a work of art and make it public, anyone can do anything they want with it immediately. I say this even though I'm an artist myself. I think it would be really good for society. All art is free.

There would be huge outcries from artists (and, of course, media holders) who would say that this is would be the death of art. But it wouldn't. It's probable that art would go into a temporary decline. People would drop out of art school, quit writing music, etc. -- knowing that they could never make a living at it. Then a new generation of artists would appear. These would be young people who grew up in a world in which no one got paid to make art (or, at least, no one could own the art they created), so they'd have no expectation of being paid or ownership. But they'd make art anyway.

I am trusting that the desire to create is innate and separate from the desire for ownership and wealth. I am sure that it is.

There may be certain art forms that will die. Maybe the movie industry couldn't weather such a storm. But art forms die for all sorts of reasons (think vaudeville, shadow puppets, etc.) ART goes on.

I get suspicious anytime someone starts moaning that Art is dead or dying. Usually, this means, "I'm worried that I won't be able to make a living as an artist" or "I'm worried that no one will like MY art" or "I'm worried that none of my friends will like the same art I like." These are all real, valid concerns. But they have nothing to do with Art. Art will endure, because there will always be some guy sitting on a park bench, strumming his guitar.
posted by grumblebee at 8:42 AM on January 2, 2007

These would be young people who grew up in a world in which no one got paid to make art (or, at least, no one could own the art they created), so they'd have no expectation of being paid or ownership. But they'd make art anyway.

And I suppose the Unicorns would tune their guitars for them?
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:51 AM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Copyright is a fairly modern invention, dating back to the late 1600s (as near as I can tell from my research [Wikipedia]) and for the first several hundred years of its existence it only applied to printed books. Modern copyright, applying to multiple media, starts in the late 1800s, only 100+ years ago. Prior to that, it seems that the arts were supported as willnot suggests: by social conventions.

All Renaissance art, and all art prior to it, were created without copyright protection (and it is well-known that the Renaissance was unicorn-powered). So, history seems to be a pretty good model for what a world would be like without intellectual property rights.

One could certainly say that the concept of an author's ownership of his works is a long-standing social convention, but enshrining it in law as copyright is rather different from what came before.
posted by breath at 10:50 AM on January 2, 2007

Creators can make a living the same way that everyone else does, by working. If their sales aren't cutting it and they don't want to be dry cleaners or scientific programmers or bankers or insurance magnates or whatever, they can teach, engineer recordings, play corporate parties, etc. There's no reason why the pursuit of art and the pursuit of wealth have to be harmonious.

When the RIAA tells you that it needs all of those millions of dollars so that their artists can devote themselves to their art, you need to realize that a) they're only talking about the tiny fraction of artists who work for their member labels, and b) those artists "devote themselves to their art" by spending all day doing press junkets, photo shoots, phone interviews, and schlepping their tushies from Poughkeepsie to Walla Walla. They'd have more time to spend on their art if they painted houses part time.

I must say that you vastly underestimate us copylefties if you think that resentment over the Napster and Grokster decisions is central to our beliefs, and you've grossly oversimplified the issue if you think that the only alternative to the status quo is the abolition of all IP.
posted by Eothele at 10:52 AM on January 2, 2007

And I suppose the Unicorns would tune their guitars for them?

I doubt it, because unicorns don't exist. But people-who-do-things-without-getting-paid DO exist. I'm one of them. I've been directing plays for 20 years without being paid a dime. In fact, I've lost tons of money (or spent it, depending on how you want to look at it) directing plays. My expectation is that I'll NEVER make any money directing plays. But I have no plans to stop directing. I do it because I have to do it. Because I feel empty if I don't do it.

I'm not independently wealthy. I have to hold down a full-time (non-theatre) job to pay the rent.

I'm not alone. I know many artists who are in the same situation I am.

Naturally, I also know many who quit making art after they found they couldn't make a living at it. That's very sad, but the world is full of people and there are plenty to take their place.

Let me state for the record that I DON'T think I'm special or better than the people who want to be paid for making art. I would love to be paid for making art. I just don't think it's going to happen. And in the end, it's irrelevant. I'll make art whether I'm paid or not.

Meanwhile, SOCIETY is better off if I don't have ownership of my work. It's better off because if no one owns the work, it's available for everyone -- anyone can take it, run with it, make anything they like with it.

There are a few plays I'd love to direct but can't because the owners won't give me the rights. I'll forgo modesty and say that I'd craft really good productions of these plays. Which would benefit society. But society will not be benefited because I don't have the rights. So these productions will never exist.

I think the whole issue boils down to this:

1) Is society better off if anyone is allowed to do anything they want with a work of art? (Besides destroying someone else's version of it.)

-- if your answer is no, stop; otherwise continue:

2) Do you believe that Art (not all artists, but art in general) will continue if artists aren't paid.

-- if your answer is no, stop (but consider how much great art exists for which the artists already aren't paid); otherwise continue.

3) Do you believe that the needs of society outweigh the needs of the individual artist?

-- if your answer is no, stop. If it's yes, we're done.

The horrible thing about my idea is that, if it was ever put into practice (it won't be, so don't worry), some great artists (who are motivated by money or ownership) would quit producing and some artforms would probably die. I contend that the benefits would outweigh the costs. If there was no IP, I think we'd see an unparalleled explosion of creative works.
posted by grumblebee at 11:14 AM on January 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

MIT economist Petra Moser recently published a paper titled "How Do Patent Laws Influence Innovation? Evidence from Nineteenth-Century World Fairs". The paper analyzes over 33,000 inventions just before and just after the adoption of patent protection in Europe. (As it turns out, most patent laws were introduced in Europe in a relatively short period of time, between 1850 and 1876). Moser counter-intuitively concludes that countries without patent protection have just as much innovation as countries with patent protection, and that the adoption of patent protection did not increase innovation. This is a striking result. It means that you don’t need patent protection or, at least, that you didn’t need it during that pivotal period of history.
posted by gd779 at 1:07 PM on January 2, 2007

There are a number of related articles linked from

It seems obvious to me that with the abolishment of copyright, even if production of movies/music/software/ideas declined to 5% of current levels, the net availability and utility would go way up. I can't articulate that argument very well, though.

More realistically... if copyright was limited to 10 years instead of lifetime + 70, would this even possibly reduce the incentive to create? Almost exactly the same incentive structure would be in place, and this would still count as a "very limited" system compared to today.
posted by teki at 1:22 PM on January 2, 2007

teki, even with my extreme views, I would consider that a very good compromise.
posted by grumblebee at 2:30 PM on January 2, 2007

The works of the Renaissance weren't quite unicorn-powered - they were paid for by wealthy patrons. Remember, there's not a "But I'm an artist!" card you can show at a grocery store to get free food.

We would see a lot of full-time drone job folks who were part-time artists on the side. However, the distrubtion of the loss of talent would not be even. Those guys who have to seclude themselves and spend a year on a novel are pretty much out. Also, a lot of people would love to write a song and play it for free. Not so many people would like to do the production on it.

Basically, you'd be back to patronage (product placement art), independently wealthy artists (dabbler art), and part-time folks who can also master all of the grueling, boring parts that people forget about like typesetting, cover design, printing, studio production, etc.
posted by adipocere at 3:32 PM on January 2, 2007

you'd be back to patronage

Except in my fantasy world, since you can own rights to art, if the Duke of Albany hires me to write him a symphony, that's fine, but he can't own the symphony after I write him for it.

I suspect very few artists would find patrons, so most artists would create art for free. We'd have a lot more artists who are in touch with "the real world" -- the world of 9-5 jobs, etc. -- and I think art would be the better for it.

part-time folks who can also master all of the grueling, boring parts that people forget about like typesetting, cover design, printing, studio production, etc.

I suspect that many of these people would be full-time and well paid. There would be a thriving industry, catering to the needs of people who want to make art.

Even today, if you want to publish a vanity-press book, you have to employ other people to print it, bind it, etc. Those people are generally full-time workers.

When I direct shows, I have to hire all sorts of people. Since my shows don't make money, how do I pay them? Mostly with money I earn at my day job. People who make Indy films are in the same boat. Many don't make money, and many of the people who make them don't expect to make money. Instead, they save their own money -- made from non-artistic activities -- and spend their savings on making their dream film, hiring some full-time, well-paid workers in the process.
posted by grumblebee at 3:59 PM on January 2, 2007

We would see a lot of full-time drone job folks who were part-time artists on the side.

This is something that happens today, and it needs to change. I stay in the arts because I have an interesting day job. Many of the people who quit the arts do so because they can't stand the idea of spending more years of their life waiting tables or working temp office jobs.

The solution is an overhaul of Arts Education. When I was in theatre school, there was a disgusting idea -- actually perpetuated by the teachers -- that it was romantic to "starve" for your art. Or at least that by working a soul-crushing day job, you were paying your dues to some sort of art god.

Worse, there's a common idea in artistic communities that if you get too engrossed in your day job -- if it's not boring -- it will suck you in and you'll give up the arts. Whereas in my experience, the opposite is true.

All of this is coupled with the fact that young people don't want to pursue anything besides their dream. Sure, they could take elective courses in programming, childcare, massage therapy, etc. -- but what they want to do is devote themselves fulltime to their craft. And they secretly believe that it will only be a few months before they're "discovered", so that waiting-tables job won't be so bad.

Someone needs to explain to them that they need to acquire some marketable skills. They need to do this FOR the arts, so that they'll be able to support themselves without taking horrible jobs WHILE they continue to create art. They need to be given the resources to help do this.

When I was in Drama School, I heard so many people claim that theatre was the only thing they liked doing or that they were inept at doing anything else. Well, if you're inept at doing stuff, there are ways to get over that. One can learn new skills. As for hating everything except theatre (or painting or whatever): that's too bad. But surely theatre plus the agony of editing a magazine is better than theatre plus the agony of waiting tables.

But people don't think they'll be editing a magazine or waiting tables. They assume that within a year, they'll be starring in "Oklahoma!" on Broadway.

People who want to go into the arts should be encouraged to do so. And just like people who hike in the wilderness, they should be given some survival training first. The point of survival training isn't to discourage people from hiking.
posted by grumblebee at 4:12 PM on January 2, 2007

Even if a musician's art is distributed online, people still want to see them play live. Even if prints of a painter's work are easily available, people still want to own an original. Even if PDFs are there for the download, people still want a signed copy of the novel. Even if the video tapes are sold on the street corner, people still want to see the play live.

The idea that art is predominantly a thing of mass production, intended for mass consumption (and therefore benefited by strict IP laws), is incredibly recent and not a little bizarre.

Without IP laws, I don't think art would change much in terms of the artist's day-to-day life: musicians would still be on tour, painters would still be trying to sell paintings, authors would still be signing books, and actors would still be trying to sell tickets.

The whole mass consumption of art thing would go ass over teakettle, though, that's for sure.
posted by Coda at 2:24 AM on January 3, 2007

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