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IP above all else

It can be hard to point a finger at exactly what is so offensive about the way the copyright lobby pushes its agenda. The rhetoric is sometimes charged, but I don’t think the problem lies in the moral foundation of intellectual monopolies (although some people certainly object to them on ethical grounds). I also don’t think it’s a fundamental business problem. Some have argued that nobody cares about content creators’ fixed costs, and that their fixation on that number is misguided, but I think that premise falls apart a bit at the margins: when fans feel a connection to a creator, they do care about her fixed costs, and want to help her make the record or book or film.

No, the ethical and economic basis of copyright isn’t inherently so offensive. It’s kind of like any other business, at its core. As the former Warner Music CTO recently put it, recorded music (for example) isn’t diamonds mined from a secret mythical land — it’s just a thing that some people make and that other people — fans — enjoy. As in nearly any other business, those fans are willing to support the producer if they feel a human connection to her. Copyright is one model we’ve developed to facilitate that support, and though it’s wearing a bit at the edges, it’s not fundamentally evil or insane.

The problem is the mindset of “IP above all else” that seems to pervade every statement and action that the copyright and patent lobbies take. That’s the mindset that leads to WIPO defying UN sanctions, shipping computers to North Korea to enable it to observe international patent law. That leads to some of the world’s greatest jazz recordings to be virtually impossible to hear, Girl Scouts being silenced at campfires, and 19-year-olds arrested at the movie theater for taking out a camera. Fighting generic drugs that save lives around the world, bribery scandals over movie deals in China, and even in the US. Pushing for laws that even supporters admit “really did pose some risk to the Internet.

The list goes on and on. As much as the copyright lobby want to frame the debate around the premise of intellectual property itself, that’s really missing the point. It’s impossible to address the problems with copyright without first acknowledging its biggest supporters’ excesses at every step.