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The Public DomainEnclosing the Commons of the Mind
By James Boyle
Yale University PressCopyright © 2008 James Boyle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhy Intellectual Property?
Imagine yourself starting a society from scratch. Perhaps you fought a revolution, or perhaps you led a party of adventurers into some empty land, conveniently free of indigenous peoples. Now your task is to make the society work. You have a preference for democracy and liberty and you want a vibrant culture: a culture with a little chunk of everything, one that offers hundreds of ways to live and thousands of ideals of beauty. You don't want everything to be high culture; you want beer and skittles and trashy delights as well as brilliant news reporting, avant-garde theater, and shocking sculpture. You can see a role for highbrow, state-supported media or publicly financed artworks, but your initial working assumption is that the final arbiter of culture should be the people who watch, read, and listen to it, and who remake it every day. And even if you are dubious about the way popular choice gets formed, you prefer it to some government funding body or coterie of art mavens.
At the same time as you are developing your culture, you want a flourishing economy-and not just in literature or film. You want innovation and invention. You want drugs that cure terrible diseases, and designsfor more fuel-efficient stoves, and useful little doodads, like mousetraps, or Post-it notes, or solar-powered backscratchers. To be exact, you want lots of innovation but you do not know exactly what innovation or even what types of innovation you want.
Given scarce time and resources, should we try to improve typewriters or render them obsolete with word processors, or develop functional voice recognition software, or just concentrate on making solar-powered backscratchers? Who knew that they needed Post-it notes or surgical stents or specialized rice planters until those things were actually developed? How do you make priorities when the priorities include things you cannot rationally value because you do not have them yet? How do you decide what to fund and when to fund it, what desires to trade off against each other?
The society you have founded normally relies on market signals to allocate resources. If a lot of people want petunias for their gardens, and are willing to pay handsomely for them, then some farmer who was formerly growing soybeans or gourds will devote a field to petunias instead. He will compete with the other petunia sellers to sell them to you. Voila! We do not need a state planner to consult the vegetable five-year plan and decree "Petunias for the People!" Instead, the decision about how to deploy society's productive resources is being made "automatically," cybernetically even, by rational individuals responding to price signals. And in a competitive market, you will get your petunias at very close to the cost of growing them and bringing them to market. Consumer desires are satisfied and productive resources are allocated efficiently. It's a tour de force.
Of course, there are problems. The market measures the value of a good by whether people have the ability and willingness to pay for it, so the whims of the rich may be more "valuable" than the needs of the destitute. We may spend more on pet psychiatry for the traumatized poodles on East 71st Street than on developing a cure for sleeping sickness, because the emotional wellbeing of the pets of the wealthy is "worth more" than the lives of the tropical world's poor. But for a lot of products, in a lot of areas, the market works-and that is a fact not to be taken for granted.
Why not use this mechanism to meet your cultural and innovation needs? If people need Madame Bovary or The New York Times or a new kind of antibiotic, surely the market will provide it? Apparently not. You have brought economists with you into your brave new world-perhaps out of nostalgia, or because a lot of packing got done at the last minute. The economists shake their heads. The petunia farmer is selling something that is "a rivalrous good." If I have the petunia, you can't have it. What's more, petunias are "excludable." The farmer only gives you petunias when you pay for them. It is these factors that make the petunia market work. What about Madame Bovary, or the antibiotic, or The New York Times? Well, it depends. If books have to be copied out by hand, then Madame Bovary is just like the petunia. But if thousands of copies of Madame Bovary can be printed on a printing press, or photocopied, or downloaded from www.flaubertsparrot.com, then the book becomes something that is nonrival; once Madame Bovary is written, it can satisfy many readers with little additional effort or cost. Indeed, depending on the technologies of reproduction, it may be very hard to exclude people from Madame Bovary.
Imagine a Napster for French literature; everyone could have Madame Bovary and only the first purchaser would have to pay for it. Because of these "nonrival" and "nonexcludable" characteristics, Flaubert's publisher would have a more difficult time coming up with a business plan than the petunia farmer. The same is true for the drug company that invests millions in screening and testing various drug candidates and ends up with a new antibiotic that is both safe and effective, but which can be copied for pennies. Who will invest the money, knowing that any product can be undercut by copies that don't have to pay the research costs? How are authors and publishers and drug manufacturers to make money? And if they can't make money, how are we to induce people to be authors or to be the investors who put money into the publishing or pharmaceutical business?
It is important to pause at this point and inquire how closely reality hews to the economic story of "nonexcludable" and "nonrival" public goods. It turns out that the reality is much more complex. First, there may be motivations for creation that do not depend on the market mechanism. People sometimes create because they seek fame, or out of altruism, or because an inherent creative force will not let them do otherwise. Where those motivations operate, we may not need a financial incentive to create. Thus the "problem" of cheap copying in fact becomes a virtue. Second, the same technologies that make copying cheaper may also lower the costs of advertising and distribution, cutting down on the need to finance expensive distribution chains. Third, even in situations that do require incentives for creativity and for distribution, it may be that being "first to market" with an innovation provides the innovator with enough of a head start on the competition to support the innovation. Fourth, while some aspects of the innovation may truly be nonrival, other aspects may not. Software is nonrival and hard to exclude people from, but it is easy to exclude your customers from the help line or technical support. The CD may be copied cheaply; the concert is easy to police. The innovator may even be advantaged by being able to trade on the likely effects of her innovation. If I know I have developed the digital camera, I may sell the conventional film company's shares short. Guarantees of authenticity, quality, and ease of use may attract purchasers even if unauthorized copying is theoretically cheaper.
In other words, the economic model of pure public goods will track our reality well in some areas and poorly in others-and the argument for state intervention to fix the problems of public goods will therefore wax and wane correspondingly. In the case of drug patents, for example, it is very strong. For lots of low-level business innovation, however, we believe that adequate incentives are provided by being first to market, and so we see no need to give monopoly power to the first business to come up with a new business plan-at least we did not until some disastrous patent law decisions discussed later in this book. Nor does a lowering of copying costs hurt every industry equally. Digital copies of music were a threat to the traditional music business, but digital copies of books? I am skeptical. This book will be freely and legally available online to all who wish to copy it. Both the publisher and I believe that this will increase rather than decrease sales.
Ignore these inconvenient complicating factors for a moment. Assume that wherever things are cheap to copy and hard to exclude others from, we have a potential collapse of the market. That book, that drug, that film will simply not be produced in the first place-unless the state steps in somehow to change the equation. This is the standard argument for intellectual property rights. And a very good argument it is. In order to solve the potentially "market-breaking" problem of goods that are expensive to make and cheap to copy, we will use what my colleague Jerry Reichman calls the "market-making" device of intellectual property. The state will create a right to exclude others from the invention or the expression and confer it on the inventor or the author. The most familiar rights of this kind are copyrights and patents. (Trademarks present some special issues, which I will address a little later.) Having been given the ability to forbid people to copy your invention or your novel, you can make them pay for the privilege of getting access. You have been put back in the position of the petunia farmer.
Pause for a moment and think of what a brilliant social innovation this is-at least potentially. Focus not on the incentives alone, but on the decentralization of information processing and decision making that a market offers. Instead of having ministries of art that define the appropriate culture to be produced this year, or turning the entire path of national innovation policy over to the government, intellectual property decentralizes the choices about what creative and innovative paths to pursue while retaining the possibility that people will actually get paid for their innovation and creative expression.
The promise of copyright is this: if you are a radical environmentalist who wants to alert the world to the danger posed by climate change, or a passionate advocate of homeschooling, or a cartoonist with a uniquely twisted view of life, or a musician who can make a slack key guitar do very strange things, or a person who likes to take amazingly saccharine pictures of puppies and put them on greeting cards-maybe you can quit your day job and actually make a living from your expressive powers. If the market works, if the middlemen and distributors are smart enough, competitive enough, and willing to take a chance on expression that competes with their in-house talent, if you can make it somehow into the public consciousness, then you can be paid for allowing the world to copy, distribute, and perform your stuff. You risk your time and your effort and your passion and, if the market likes it, you will be rewarded. (At the very least, the giant producers of culture will be able to assemble vast teams of animators and musicians and software gurus and meld their labors into a videotape that will successfully anesthetize your children for two hours; no small accomplishment, let me tell you, and one for which people will certainly pay.)
More importantly, if the system works, the choices about the content of our culture-the mix of earnest essays and saccharine greeting cards and scantily clad singers and poetic renditions of Norse myths-will be decentralized to the people who actually read, or listen to, or watch the stuff. This is our cultural policy and it is driven, in part, by copyright.
The promise of patent is this: we have a multitude of human needs and a multitude of individuals and firms who might be able to satisfy those needs through innovation. Patent law offers us a decentralized system that, in principle, will allow individuals and firms to pick the problem that they wish to solve. Inventors and entrepreneurs can risk their time and their capital and, if they produce a solution that finds favor in the marketplace, will be able to reap the return provided by the legal right to exclude-by the legal monopoly over the resulting invention. The market hints at some unmet need-for drugs that might reduce obesity or cure multiple sclerosis, or for Post-it notes or windshield wipers that come on intermittently in light rain-and the innovator and her investors make a bet that they can meet that need. (Not all of these technologies will be patentable-only those that are novel and "nonobvious," something that goes beyond what any skilled person in the relevant field would have done.)
In return for the legal monopoly, patent holders must describe the technology well enough to allow anyone to replicate it once the patent term ends. Thus patent law allows us to avert two dangers: the danger that the innovation will languish because the inventor has no way to recover her investment of time and capital, and the danger that the inventor will turn to secrecy instead, hiding the details of her innovation behind black box technologies and restrictive contracts, so that society never gets the knowledge embedded in it. (This is a real danger. The medieval guilds often relied on secrecy to maintain the commercial advantage conveyed by their special skills, thus slowing progress down and sometimes simply stopping it. We still don't know how they made Stradivarius violins sound so good. Patents, by contrast, keep the knowledge public, at least in theory; you must describe it to own it.) And again, decisions about the direction of innovation have been largely, though not entirely, decentralized to the people who actually might use the products and services that result. This is our innovation policy and it is increasingly driven by patent.
What about the legal protection of trademarks, the little words or symbols or product shapes that identify products for us? Why do we have trademark law, this "homestead law for the English language"? Why not simply allow anyone to use any name or attractive symbol that they want on their products, even if someone else used it first? A trademark gives me a limited right to exclude other people from using my mark, or brand name, or product shape, just as copyright and patent law give me a limited right to exclude other people from my original expression or my novel invention. Why create such a right and back it with the force of law?
According to the economists, the answer is that trademark law does two things. It saves consumers time. We have good reason to believe that a soap that says "Ivory" or a tub of ice cream that says "Häagen-Dazs" will be made by the same manufacturer that made the last batch of Ivory soap or Häagen-Dazs ice cream. If we liked the good before and we see the symbol again, we know what we are getting. I can work out what kind of soap, ice cream, or car I like, and then just look for the appropriate sign rather than investigating the product all over again each time I buy. That would be wasteful and economists hate waste. At the same time, trademarks fulfill a second function: they are supposed to give manufacturers an incentive to make good products-or at least to make products of consistent quality or price-to build up a good brand name and invest in consistency of its key features, knowing that no other firm can take their name or symbol. (Why produce a high-quality product, or a reliable cheap product, and build a big market share if a free rider could wait until people liked the product and then just produce an imitation with the same name but of lower quality?) The promise of trademark is that quality and commercial information flow regulate themselves, with rational consumers judging among goods of consistent quality produced by manufacturers with an interest in building up long-term reputation.
So there we have the idealized vision of intellectual property. It is not merely supposed to produce incentives for innovation by rewarding creators, though that is vital. Intellectual property is also supposed to create a feedback mechanism that dictates the contours of information and innovation production. It is not an overstatement to say that intellectual property rights are designed to shape our information marketplace. Copyright law is supposed to give us a self-regulating cultural policy in which the right to exclude others from one's original expression fuels a vibrant public sphere indirectly driven by popular demand. At its best, it is supposed to allow a decentralized and iconoclastic cultural ferment in which independent artists, musicians, and writers can take their unique visions, histories, poems, or songs to the world-and make a living doing so if their work finds favor. Patent law is supposed to give us a self-regulating innovation policy in which the right to exclude others from novel and useful inventions creates a cybernetic and responsive innovation marketplace. The allocation of social resources to particular types of innovation is driven by guesses about what the market wants. Trademark law is supposed to give us a self-regulating commercial information policy in which the right to exclude others from one's trade name, symbol, or slogan produces a market for consumer information in which firms have incentives to establish quality brand names and consumers can rely on the meaning and the stability of the logos that surround them. Ivory soap will always mean Ivory soap and Coke will mean Coke, at least until the owners of those marks decide to change the nature of their products.
Excerpted from The Public Domain by James Boyle Copyright © 2008 by James Boyle. Excerpted by permission.
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