Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The crucial difference between patents and copyrights

After correctly making the case against copyright protection in fashion, Reihan Salam states that "in my view, copyright protection is a bad idea in general". He follows up by citing an interesting example from Against Intellectual Monopoly, which discusses how James Watt's "invention" of the steam engine really consisted of making improvements to existing steam engines and being assertive about patent rights. The punch line? The steam engine only took off after Watt's patents expired.

I hate to be so pedantic, but we need to remember that patents and copyrights are very different. While the steam engine example is useful for understanding the effects of patent protection, it offers very little support for Reihan's opposition to copyrights "in general".

The key difference is that copyrights don't allow ownership over an idea. If Reihan writes a book about how iPhone apps will revolutionize lighthouse construction (or something similarly Reihan-esque), I can come along and write a very similar book without penalty. As long as I avoid outright plagiarism, I am free to remix Reihan's ideas in my own bestselling work. "Intellectual monopoly" isn't really the right phrase to describe text copyrights; no one has a monopoly on ideas (and no one should!).

It's especially ironic—though admirable in its way—for a professional writer to advocate the abolition of copyright. In a world without copyright, it would be extremely difficult for National Review to make any money. I could come along and extract National Review's content onto my own, nearly ad-free page; the magazine would need to remove ads on its own site to compete, and revenues would plummet. A online subscription model like the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times would be dead in the water.

This isn't to say, of course, that our current copyright regime is optimal. There is no reason why the copyright on Reihan's blog posts should last any longer than, say, ten years. But abolishing copyright altogether would result in a radical change in the incentives to create written content, and as I hope my earlier post illustrates, the economic case for no copyright is very convoluted and difficult to make.

Patents are a completely different story, because they do produce intellectual monopolies and all kinds of pernicious rent-seeking behavior. Granting software patents is surely a destructive practice, and our entire patent system deserves a comprehensive and skeptical reexamination. But please, don't conflate justified skepticism about patents with opposition to intellectual property in general. The two are very different.

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