Copyrights and the new information economy

July 20, 2008

Joan Cheverie1 differs with Yochai Benkler2 regarding the changes brought by digital technologies. Although both authors believe that computer networks provide cheap distribution of information, they disagree about the importance of copyrights and other intellectual property protection.

According to Cheverie, copyright systems have been balancing incentives and the public domain. Until now, they have been effective tools to allow authors to profit from their work, but the ease of distribution provided by the internet has made them less efficient. Cheverie believes that the copyright system will have to expand or publishers may have to create ‘digital fences’ to preserve the incentive to create. However, she thinks that digital fences will also enclose portions of the public domain. The author emphasizes that changes in technology or law may reduce the importance of libraries, which have been offering free education, research and content legally.

Conversely, Benkler points out that the majority of businesses don’t depend primarily on copyrights or patents to derive benefits from their research investments. The author shows that there are nonmarket sources (ex: government agencies) and market actors that don’t rely on intellectual property rights. He uses the newspaper industry as an example because their revenues from copyrights are very small compared to advertising and sales at newsstands or subscriptions.

Benkler also writes that there is a little support in economics for regulating information using intellectual property laws: “In the overall mix of our information, knowledge, and cultural production system, the total weight of these exclusivity-based market actors is surprisingly small relative to the combination of nonmarket sectors, government and nonprofit, and market-based actors whose business models do not depend on proprietary exclusion from their information outputs” (pp. 41). He cites other strategies to produce information that do not depend on patents or copyrights, such as “Scholarly Lawyers” who write articles to get clients (pp. 43). Benkler believes that the networked environment allows people to adopt cooperation strategies rather than accept proprietary claims.

1 Cheverie. J. (2002), “The Changing Economics of Information, Technological Development, and Copyright Protection”. Washington, D.C: The Journal of Academic Librarianship 28 (5), pages 325-331.

2 Benkler, Y. (2006). The Wealth of Networks. New Haven: Yale University Press.