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Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Beware Pleas Based on Moral Panic


William Patry made this excellent point in tonight's SCL Annual Lecture, specifically in connection with proposals to extend further the term of copyright.

As William pointed out, appeals on the grounds of moral panic are most often made where there is an asymmetry in the information being provided to legislators: criminal law and copyright law being key examples. In each context, the allegedly illicit actor is hardly in a position to give evidence - unlike in cases where industry players are pitted against one another, which usually produces hard evidence pointing in each direction (e.g. competition law disputes). So the way is clear for the authorities or the copyright owner to appeal for protection merely because it is "right and just" rather than to protect any empirically demonstrated harm to its interests.

Such pleas may ultimately be futile, of course. Attempts by the music industry to deny access to music downloads neither prevented the rise of Napster and iTunes, nor prevented the steady demise of EMI. As I've also mentioned before, the root cause of music industry disruption is consumer dissatisfaction, not copyright violation.

William Patry's suggestion is to insist on an empirical approach to the issue of whether or not the copyright regime works, rather than a continued assumption that it's a property right that deserves protection at any cost. Only then will a proportionate response emerge. I share the view that in all regulatory matters - like business process issues - one must first define the problem and ascertain its scale before deciding whether or not to devote precious state resources to resolving it. At that point, legislators should insist on finding the root causes and implementing the best solutions to tackle them.

Attempts at providing empirical evidence on these issues in the file-sharing context, for example, have been pathetic. Claims that music providers will lose £1bn in CD sales over the next 5 years are disingenuous when their digital sales are increasing at the rate of 28% a year. And where is the evidence that extending the term of copyright will result in more copyright works that will yield satisfactory incomes for creators? Is it not possible that shortening the copyright term would result in a far greater volume of sales for more artists at lower prices to consumers?

The people should be told before any further extension to copyright is granted.
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