EconTalk: Digital Barbarism

Author Mark Helprin is this week’s guest on Russ Roberts’ excellent EconTalk Podcast. Helprin discusses ideas from his new book Digital Barbarism, a defense of traditional copyright law.

Helprin’s thesis is that the anti-copyright movement is an extension of the broader trend towards collectivization rather than an embrace of individual rights. Copyrights are about protecting the rights of individuals over and against the collective.

I’ve always shared the pro-copyright view and am not swayed by the vapid arguments that technology makes copyrights antiquated. As Helprin notes, it’s because of technology that copyrights were ever devised in the first place to protect the individual.

My own view has been formed around the concept that the choice of the rights-holder (whether an artist, writer, publishing house, or music company) to defend his own rights is paramount and should be respected and protected by any means necessary — including DRM, encryption measures, and civil penalties. When copyrights are viewed as traditional contract law, there are two parties rather than just the consumer. If a consumer doesn’t like the terms under which works are released, he or she can just walk away and find an alternative source under mutually consensual terms.

If you don’t like Metallica’s vocal opposition to P2P, listen to a band releasing works under liceses that allow free redistribution. If you don’t like movies being released on DVD with encryption, watch only unencrypted movies. If you don’t like proprietary software or software that costs money, use only open source software available at no charge.

Those who want to “share alike” — and I’ve licensed some of my own works under such a license, but I would never release everything under it — are always free to do so with their own content. They can do that for whatever reason they want, whether to expand an audience or because they don’t want the hassles of traditional copyright in a digital age; practical reasons often make such licenses more tenable than traditional copyrights.

Likewise, traditional copyrights and patents serve a valid need in our society. Those who choose other means to protect  their property — no matter how strict and archaic — should be respected by those who disagree with those measures. Unfortunately, such mutual respect is difficult in the digital age given the number of and doctrinaire views of Internet scofflaws.

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