Sunday, February 7, 2010

My "Big Bad Idea Monster" - ad-hoc IP economic analysis

I just watched a movie about the interaction between intellectual property law and human ingenuity.  With the huge sums of money that were being thrown around, it's no question that this is certainly a job for economics.  I'm not sure we have the tools to analyze this problem - and revolution may be the only answer.  The movie was about a musician who's instrument is the sample.... "Girl Talk".  If you don't know who this is, you should look him up.

The question:  Which provides the greatest benefit to society... copyright, or "copyleft" as the movie mentions (putting some weird political seasoning on the argument)? ... I'm going to do my best to analyze my understanding of what copyright is and how it might fit in today's cultural world.

I'll admit, I am by no means a master of copyright policy, or even the economics of IP.  Again, I want to do my best to balance this argument.  Being part of a younger generation I grew up with napster, limewire, and now the proliferation of torrent files, I can't ignore the impact that these instruments have had/are having/and will have on our society.  I also recognize the importance of copyright law; my education demands that I do. ... I guess I'm a little freer to think now (since I've graduated), but it would be naive to ignore my education, so I don't.

Copyright is in place to protect innovation and give innovators the ability to develop their original ideas for a profit.  A head-start, if you will, to keep others from saying - "hey, that's a great poem.  I'm going to write it too, and sell it to buyers for a profit."  Of course, this extends well beyond text, into music, medicine, technology, and (questionably) ?life?, among a myriad of other mediums.

The opposing argument is that, if the original idea is a public one, then there are any number of interested people who can develop the idea, exploring all of it's various iterations.  This argument proposes that the social welfare gains from this "public development" are greater than those of confining the development to a single firm/individual.

The economic concern with not having copyright is that a society's willingness to innovate will diminish.  Is this the case?  Was this the case?  Will this be the case?

I recently stumbled upon Robert Nozick's "Utility Monster," which I don't totally understand, but I thought I'd create a similar monster and conduct my very own thought experiment.  Say hello to my "Big Bad Idea Monster" (BBIM), who is loosely defined as the only entity in an entirely copyright-free society with an "idea radar."  So it chooses to build the teleporter I just finished planning in the dream I had last night, but decides against other ideas that have little or no merit - like, square pegs for round holes.  This creature has a budget constraint, and the development and marketing of these "good" ideas are just as constraining as time and money allow.  It simply has all the ideas.

There are two worlds that I want to observe this greedy creature in: 1) a very local world - i.e., pre-telecommunications (Pre-t) - which is some time in the 1800's I guess; and 2) a world some time in the future, where individuals are not limited by the words they conceive for a google search to find the information they require.  Additionally, these two worlds are not to be depicted chronologically.  They are entirely independent of each other.

At first glance, it seems that the BBIM would have a great advantage over the innovators of the Pre-t society.  It can see all the ideas that everyone is having, and will capitalize on the best ones within it's ability to.  The best innovators are SOL.  They subsequently see the futility of their endeavors and distribute their labor to more profitable uses - physical labor.  Eventually, the BBIM is left to its own facilities in creating and developing new ideas for the marketplace.  The benefit of copyright law is blatantly obvious.  And innovation drives a flourishing society - all is right... ahhh.

In my second world, we are all much closer to being our own BBIMs.  The OG (Original Gangsta, for the uninitiated) BBIM still has an advantage, but the playing field appears much more level.  Given the budget constraint of the BBIM, it may even be that the BBIM is at a disadvantage.

To me, this sounds very much like the debate that is currently going on with regards to IP in the digital age.  Though the two worlds I described are independent, they are certainly analogies of our past and future.

Does the public availability and development of ideas provide for greater social value than traditional copyright law?  Will it diminish innovation as much as I've been taught?  Is there a middle-ground? ... are all ideas the same?

Markets for ideas (mostly artistic markets, from my perspective) appear to be in a state of flux.  Can this on-going transition  be a graceful one through policy, or does it have to be a fight to the death to arrive at whatever the future holds?  Unfortunately, I think the latter is true.  Walras' auction will continue to play itself out, and we will eventually experience the result.  We'll then acquire entirely new problems that have yet to be conceived.  I can't wait for the future, but I'm forced to wait forever.

Pick o' the Post #7: "Blackwater Park" by Opeth on Blackwater Park (2001)

... I just bought this album on vinyl, so I decided that I have to make another Opeth pick.

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