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.