Monday 19 November 2012

In search of copyright’s Goldilocks Zone

Banning things rarely produces the results hoped for by the putative suppressors.  Alice Cooper famously sent Mary Whitehouse a bunch of flowers when her complaint about School’s Out being performed on Top of the Pops launched his career into the stratosphere.

Today’s news that the US Republican Study Committee has disowned and pulled a discussion paper on copyright less than 24 hours after issuing it sent this reader, and no doubt many others, rushing to find out what was so terrible that it had to be removed from public gaze. 

Well, it’s a paper somewhat in the Hargreaves mould, though more radical.  Far removed from the ‘copyright is my castle’ school of thought, it emphasises balance and the economic effects of copyright.  Being American it starts from the US Constitution’s recitation that copyright exists not for its own sake, or for the sole benefit of creators, but in order “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”.  It is good to know that a 200 year old revolutionary document can in 2012 still seem dangerously subversive.

The paper’s perspective is unashamedly classical liberal, with its analysis of current copyright legislation from the perspective of whether it is consistent with laissez-faire capitalism (answer an emphatic ‘No’).  In social welfarist UK and Europe that is likely to be a minority concern, illuminating though the discussion is.  It is as if Lord Macaulay had risen from the grave and taken forward his analysis of copyright as a necessary evil to which we must submit for the sake of the good. 

Memorably, the paper invokes the Goldilocks principle.  Just as you can have too little copyright, you can have too much copyright.  The objective is to get it just right – to find the Goldilocks Zone for copyright.  A radical idea indeed.