Thursday, 12 January 2012

Stealing books

Last July Aaron Swartz was arrested for taking direct action against copyright restrictions on academic papers by downloading almost the entire JSTOR archive.  Kevin Drum has just found out and expresses surprise at the outrage provoked by Swartz's arrest.  Megan McArdle has taken this up with a long and confused piece about property rights.

This is less difficult than McArdle makes it seem.  Goods have an intellectual content, which is non-rivalrous, and a physical content, which is rivalrous.  Property rights serve both as a rationing mechanism for rivalrous content and as an incentive to increased production.  Land is very expensive to create (albeit Hong Kong is closer to Kowloon than it used to be) so property rights over land are useful almost entirely for rationing (and non-rivalrous trespass on land is not usually a criminal offence).  Computer files are almost free to copy, so property rights over them are useful only to encourage creation of their intellectual content.  Books, which trouble McArdle, have both physical value and intellectual content.  There's no intellectual problem with believing that the intellectual content of a particular book should not be protected by copyright but that a physical copy of the book should be protected by physical property rights.

It's important to make these distinctions, because they enable one to consider whether property rights are working well to achieve what we want.  It's obvious that 70 years after an author's death is a much longer copyright period than could conceivably be needed to encourage the creation of intellectual content.

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