A response to the Harvard Crimson’s “A Sensible Compromise”

This post is cross-posted from the Students for Free Culture blog. I’ve also submitted a shorter version to the Crimson as a letter to the editor.

A Sensible Compromise,” an editorial published in the Harvard Crimson last week, described the actions of the MPAA in urging universities like Harvard to develop a “written plan to effectively combat the unauthorized distribution of copyright material by users” of the university network in compliance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The Crimson’s take, as suggested by the title, is that these actions and the law that supports them are reasonable and justified.

The evidence for the Crimson’s claim is shaky, based largely on two sweeping claims about intellectual property. The Crimson states as common sense that without an effective intellectual property regime, there will be no incentive for innovation.

But around the world there are well documented examples of innovation and creativity that function in the absence of strong copyright protection: the world’s second largest movie industry, in Nigeria, and the booming “techno brega” scene in Brazil were both documented in the documentary “Good Copy Bad Copy,” which is available for free online. And that’s to say nothing of all of the innovations that took place before the mid-1700s, the works of Mozart, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and all the others that lived before modern copyright was developed. Lastly, enormous areas of creativity like fashion, cooking, comedy, and even magic tricks operate without copyright protection. Closer to home, the entire academic publishing system functions without authors retaining copyright for their works, instead exchanging their monopoly for the opportunity to publish. Copyright can certainly provide a motivation for entrepreneurs to create, but in light of these examples, The Crimson’s statement that the absence of IP laws would eliminate innovation seems unjustifiable.

The second overbroad claim in the editorial pertains to a concept called “moral rights.” “Intellectual property rights are important,” according to the Crimson, “because each person has a fundamental right to enjoy the fruits of his or her mental labor.” The fact is that that justification is not uncommon in parts of the world, but has no basis in American law. The Constitutional “copyright clause,” in fact, is the only right enumerated in the Constitution with an explicit purpose, and that purpose is incentivization: Congress may secure monopolies for creators in order “to promote the progress of science and the useful arts.” No less than Thomas Jefferson was uncomfortable with the “embarrassment” of monopolies, but conceded that as an incentive, they might be worthwhile. As a fundamental moral right? He never even considered it.

Finally, the editorial talks about the concept of “balance,” and then gets into a discussion of business models, debating whether the ones that exist today are convenient enough to remove the justification for piracy. This discussion is an interesting one, and has a place elsewhere, but let’s not confuse an economic argument with an ideological one. In the world’s premiere institution of higher learning—and truly, in any institution of higher learning—the balance isn’t a question of business models. Should Harvard University, at the urging of a media industry that presumes the students to be criminals, reduce the flow of information available to them?

The MPAA and similar organizations are comfortable to disregard the educational benefits that technology has brought us and to see the Harvard student body as a group of potential criminal freeloaders. One can sympathize with members of the movie industry which, in spite of consistently breaking annual box office records, purports to be having a hard time. And it’s certainly reasonable for a university to discuss what the legal and technical guidelines of its network ought to be. But it’s wrong to kowtow to the demands of a media industry at the cost of Harvard students’ technological autonomy.