When the copyright industry goes out in a public confusion and asks itself what the right price is for a copy of a digital bitpattern, I always shake my head. The mere question shows that they are still stuck in the 1900s, and yet, they keep asking the question in their best voice of entitlement.
It was never about the money. The price of a copy doesn’t factor into it.
It’s not a matter of copies having come under competition from something else; it’s the matter of copies having been entirely decommercialized. People are prepared to pay for work, but making copies is not work anymore. Anybody can do it effortlessly.
Let me try an analogy. In a future where the Earth has been poisoned to an extent where the water is a health hazard, cleanup efforts have been ongoing for a long time. For health reasons, there are laws that people may only drink the water from a particular company, Waterisnew, which enjoys a monopoly on water supply — and know to charge for it, too.
Then, one day, nature’s water is announced clean by scientists. But the laws are still in place. People rush out into the forest and drink from rivers, despite the fact that it breaks laws and Waterisnew’s monopoly.
Executives at Waterisnew are furious that people dare break their monopoly. Somebody asks, cautiously, if the price of water may be wrong? Could there be a business failure involved? If they charged less for the water, then maybe people would stop pirate-drinking water from clean rivers and go back to legal alternatives?
As illustrated, the question misses the point entirely. Just as the water had become decommercialized, so has making copies of bitpatterns.
People don’t copy because of a price tag somewhere else, entirely regardless of what that price tag says. People copy because they can, because it is associated with freedom and because it is in human nature to share.
We’ve had large-scale file-sharing for well over twenty years, and there are still people surprised at having a 90% pirated user base. You can almost hear the scornful cries of how the greedy pirates won’t even pay 99 cents in the story above. That’s because price was never a factor in the first place.
What the copyright lobby will argue to lawmakers at this point in the argument is that they have spent serious money creating the bitpattern that people copy in violation of their monopoly, and therefore want to recoup that investment.
In this, they are exactly right. And irrelevant. The operative phrase here is “have spent money”. Economics 101: on a functioning market, any product will be priced at its margin cost, an economic term meaning the cost of making product unit number n+1 if you have already made n units, as n approaches infinity. The upfront cost of any first product is entirely irrelevant in a functioning market. And we all know the margin cost for duplicating a bitpattern: it is exactly zero.
(It is not hard to spend money, and lots of it. Usually, it can be quite fun, too. But there is never a legal right to earn burnt money back at a profit.)
“But if we can’t recoup the investment in the way we always have”, says the copyright lobby threateningly to lawmakers, “there won’t be any new culture created.” This is where they go so far out they don’t even reflect sunlight any longer. Humankind has created culture since we learned to put red paint on the inside of cave walls; others will pick up the slack immediately. If anything, it would be a blessing if the copyright industry challenged the world to see how well the world did without them.
Creative Commons is a good example of how millions of creators renounce their already-awarded copyright monopoly. That shows how much the monopoly is needed for new culture to be created, i.e. not at all.
There are plenty of good business cases in a world where anybody can copy anything, but selling executions of the “copy” command with something like a one-trillion percent profit margin, all while demonizing your potential clientele, was never one of them.
It was never about the money, stupid. It was about what people consider to be work.