Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The new Economy Applied to Engineers

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 22, 2000

There has been a pretty determined attack on the idea of copyright-free distribution of music, publications, and the like. Indeed, one of the trolls I posted within the last week depicts the rising anger of authors about used book sales on Amazon, since they are thus being deprived of royalties.

Scott Adams' recent set of Dilbert cartoons is intended to trivialize the idea of copyright-free distribution by applying it to other fields, such as software engineering. He is depicting the engineer as an artist who works on tips, just as (in his mind) the writer or musician whose works are distributed for free must also work on tips.

The gag is effective and good for some cheap laughs, but it misrepresents both the debate and the copyright-free marketplace.

But let's turn our attention to Wally (the engineer) for a moment.

Wally works for a company. Were he an independent, he would work for a contractor. For his pay (salary or contract), he would produce a specific product: a piece of code, a hardware design, or some documentation. Once Wally has created and delivered that product, he no longer has a copyright stake in the product. It is now owned by the company that hired him.

We can make fun of Wally working for tips, but in fact, enforcing, protecting or increasing copyright and patent protection will not help Wally one whit. He is already in the service industry. The copyright increasingly protects his employers (who, ironically, now have less of a need for Wally's services than they did before.

The same thing is happening in the publishing and music industry. As Courtney Love pointed out not too long ago, musicians are increasingly being signed to "work for hire" contracts, which means effectively that the copyright transfers to the publisher.

The same thing happens in the publishing industry. I was recently asked to submit a paper to a technical journal, but on reviewing the contract found that I would be assigning all rights - including moral rights - to the journal publisher. I would require permission to reprint my own work. This is widespread, which is why you see the phrase 'reprinted with permission from the publisher' in anthologies and similar collections.

The fact is, copyright protects me only if I get big enough (or famous enough) to demand a share of the royalties. That doesn't happen a lot: only the most significant actors and actresses, authors and cartoonists, musicians and other artists get to collect royalties. Before you start citing counterexamples, think of the hundreds of Taiwanese animators who actually draw the Simpsons episodes, the session musicians who backed Metallica, the journalists who cover today's news, or the person who created the Energizer Bunny.

Moreover, as we are increasingly able to store and retrieve information world wide, the demand for new product actually decreases. This week, for example, the Beatles released yet another compilation album, 1, a collection of their number 1 singles. As it shot to the top of the charts in Britain, a contemporary musician was displaced.

We already have a canon of hundreds of thousands - millions, even - of musical works, books, how-to articles, cartoons, and other artworks, many of which are immensely popular and which will continue to sell for the indefinite future. As this body of information is made available, people are less likely to require new versions. Sure, there is always the desire for something fresh and original, but this market is being swamped by the desire for something old and familiar.

Why would a publishing company pay to develop and promote a new band to teens (who have no history) when they can accomplish the same sales by dusting off some old Floyd concept albums? Why would a publishing company hire - and pay royalties to - an author to develop a trigonometry text when the same material already rests in its data banks?

Artists, musicianms, writers and cartoonists probably do not like the idea of being lumped into the service industry - no doubt, the do not like being in the same class of employee as waitresses and busboys - but royalty protection will not save them from that fate, it will only accelerate it.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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