The purpose of copyright law

I am always interested in popular (or at least non-academic) conceptions of intellectual property law, and there’s an interesting back-and-forth going on between Matt Yglesias at ThinkProgress and Sonny Bunch on Conventional Folly.  Yglesias posts a graph showing the music industry’s declining sales — from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $6.3 billion in 2009 — and states that the purpose of copyright law is to protect consumers: “It is, of course, possible that at some point the digital music situation will start imperiling the ability of consumers to enjoy music.  The purpose of intellectual property law is to prevent that from happening, and if it does come to pass we’ll need to think seriously about rejiggering things.”  Bunch responds by claiming a very different purpose for copyright law: “The purpose of intellectual property law has very little to do with Matt Yglesias being able to enjoy a wide variety of new music.  The purpose of intellectual property law is to protect the intellectual property created by artists so they are rewarded for their efforts.  The purpose of intellectual property law is to punish people who steal that which isn’t theirs.”   Andrew Sullivan has been tracking this debate (here and here), including reader comments along the way.

Though I think there’s too much bluster on both sides, I’m often impressed at the level of the debate.  I tend more to Yglesias’ view, that copyright is (or ought to be) more about incentive than reward.  What I’d like to see is a chart about the amount of music out there and available to consumers.  What sorts of changes have there been between 1999 and 2009 that are not reflected in music sales (which is more about a particular business model than about the amount of creativity out there)?

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3 Responses

  1. C.T. says:

    I often find these debates to be quite frustrating in that they seem to be premised on the notion that copyright is somehow a zero-sum game, and that its purpose is *either* for the public good *or* for incenting the creation of new works. Almost always lost in the shuffle is the fact that these objectives are, or were intended to be, coextensive.

  2. TJ says:

    I join C.T.’s observation. Yglesias is making the classical economic argument, and Bunch is making what might be called the Lockean argument. At the end of the day, they really don’t lead to much of a difference in outcomes, since you don’t have incentive without reward. The only difference is whether we should give rewards even if they create no incentive (or create utterly unnecessary incentives).

    Finally, I’m not nearly so impressed at the level of the debate, even if these are not IP people. It is very unhelpful sloganeering to say the purpose of IP is to prevent stealing, because the statement is circular. There is nothing to “steal” until the law defines what the property right is. It is like saying the purpose of law is to prevent illegal behavior.