Copyright ‘Losses’ And Public Gains


Harrison Ainsworth

How a common corporate message of copyright and the internet is the complete upside-down of truth.

Headlines of ‘losses’ to piracy don't properly show losses at all. They more closely show gains: gains to the public in real, tangible availability of goods. How real are these ‘losses’? Would someone have paid for a copy if it wasn't free? Has increased promotion not also increased other sales? We don't know. But we do know that increased distribution gives people things they didn't have before.

To assess our state and that of copyright, the question to ask is: ‘Does the average person have more new music/films/books/etc. to enjoy?’ – that combines production and distribution into current overall good for the public. This is the key point and it seems reasonably measurable . . . Where is this data? – ‘File-Sharing and Copyright’, by Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf, has some: from about 2002 to 2007 music album releases more than doubled, film production increased 30%, and book publication increased 66%.

But does it even need measurement? Is there anyone who has less music/films/books now than 15 years ago, before the web? Such a proposition seems ludicrous. (Some may say this is due to stronger copyright: No, the word of the law is stronger, but its realisation, its actual effect on behaviour has never been weaker.) Internet distribution has done good for the public, and done it because it has overcome copyright.

That such an important, and actually obvious, viewpoint is absent from general examination shows how badly our systems adapt. Both individually and collectively, we are so strongly locked into fixed patterns that we struggle to think things through, and even to see what is in front of us.


For such abstract cultural goods, the difference between the actual distribution and the desired possible distribution equals the loss to the public due to copyright. Separately, the difference between unsupported production and copyright supported production equals the gain to the public.

The gain of supported production doesn't seem obviously to have changed over the last few decades. In constrast, the loss has plainly grown immensely. Before tape-recording, the possible extra distribution was practically zero. Between then and the internet, it grew significantly. And with the internet, the possible distribution is much larger than ever before.

With technological advance, both production and distribution get easier. So not only does the cost of copyright clearly increase, its gain may even tend to diminish too. For copyright to serve the public properly it should over time have been incrementally reduced, yet the exact opposite has happened. Something is definitely wrong.