Duplicating Money

The European Union is considering changing copyright law. Following their decision to (depending on your perspective) give a platform to or muffle the Pirate Party by placing them at the heart of the preliminary analysis, the question of whether copyright should exist at all is once more than a fringe debate. I don’t believe copyright is fair. But I also don’t believe a fairer alternative is simply getting rid of it.

The traditional model of sales is based on the idea that a seller has a finite number of items and exchanges them for money, and has costs for storage, transport, &c. Someone stealing one of those products reduces the seller’s maximum income. Someone paying only material costs denies the seller the reasonable additional costs incurred.

However in the case of an ebook these principles don’t apply:

  • If someone makes a copy of one of my ebooks, I still have my book. So copyright infringement doesn’t reduce the number of products I have to sell.

  • I have each of my books saved on my computer in a variety of eReader formats. Disregarding the cost of the electricity to run my computer for a few seconds, the cost to make a copy and email it to someone is therefore zero; the costs of the sale are trivial.

So there are, on a superficial inspection, sound reasons for saying ebook sales are almost entirely profit in a way other sales aren’t, and that copying an ebook isn’t theft. And I agree with the sentiments behind these allegations.

However, considered from a wider perspective, the reasons display flaws:

  • Although someone copying my ebooks does not reduce the number I can create, it does reduce the number of people who don’t have a copy of the book already. So – while not stealing the actual book – does steal opportunities to sell my ebook.

  • The cost of writing a book (even calculated at a low hypothetical hourly rate), paying for an editor, cover designer, formatting, and the other costs is large. So if we were to adopt the model of only charging a reasonable mark-up on the cost of creating the specific item being sold, the first copy of my ebooks would cost hundreds – if not thousands – of pounds. So, the profit component of the cover price of subsequent copies is actually a partial return on the cost not recovered on the first copy.

It is this last point that both reveals my issue with copyright and the (dramatic) alternative I would like in an ideal world.

The right to be paid for allowing copies of my work to be created is fairer than having to recover the costs on the first copy, both in terms cost to me in finding a first buyer and in terms of the first buyer not paying for every other person to have it for free. However, once I have made back my costs, each subsequent copy is profit without endeavour. Therefore, copyright as long-term right can be unjust.

A mechanism to identify when the cost of creation had been repaid, along with a fair rate of interest to reflect the cost of deferred recovery, for every work would be hugely complex.

So the solution lies not in a different mechanism to recover the cost of creation through each purchase, but in separating the cost of creation from the copies altogether. Whether through a post-scarcity economy, where the cost of creation is also trivial, or through a generous citizen’s income to remove the need for each person involved in the creation to charge for time spent, my ideal solution would be for creators to be paid a fair sum irrespective of sales and ebooks to be duplicated at no cost.

However, that requires a huge economic shift. So – until that comes – I support the concept of copyright. The nuances of a fairer copyright are a longer and less clear issue.

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3 thoughts on “Duplicating Money

  1. One thing you’re not taking into account, though, is risk. For instance, an author writing a book has no idea if it will sell. So they don’t know if it will cover their costs. Like most things, the potential benefit has to be inflated to outweigh the risk of no benefit at all.

    Another thing is training. For instance, I’m paid more because I went to college and then worked for 20 years. An author of a book people want to read has trained herself for years, if not decades, and the potential earnings reflect that.

    So just covering the costs isn’t the extent of it. Copyright isn’t a perfect system, but any alternative system would have to reflect all of the variable. As you say, it’s too complex to be manageable.

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    1. I was considering risk of not recovering the costs in full as part of the interest for delay; however, you are right that they are technically two separate issues.

      To an extent, my suggestion of a default income would solve the training issue: if you can live without needing to have a full time job to meet the bills then it is much easier to devote time to practising for several hours every day.

      As it is, the training cost is not passed on fairly: if a plumber wants to write, then he has to do all the training outside work; whereas, a lawyer gets to write every day for their job and is paid for doing it. So the cost in time and money to get – if not expert training – a solid background in writing and self-editing depending on what else you do.

      So would I, having trained as a lawyer, charge less because I have already been paid for picking up certain skills, or do I pass on some of the cost of other training I paid for to become a lawyer in the first place?

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      1. Well, that’s the question isn’t it. Does all of your accumulated experience count? For instance, if I was going to court and I had a choice between hiring you or hiring my cousin with no experience, I would think your experience was worth the money.

        Then, if there was a lawyer who never lost in the type of case I was bringing, she might cost more. Would it be worth it for her possibly unbeatable service?

        Books, as an example, are the same. I spent more on a Scalzi book than I would spend on an indie book. However, Scalzi books are worth it to me.

        It’s a tangled subject, really. There’s a reason no one has come up with something better than copyright.

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