Copyright and Confirmation Bias


Copyright and Confirmation Bias

Brendan Scott

see also: No Cost Too Great for Copyright

An old (2005) post about Napster was recently brought to my attention.   In it, Don Dodge, a former VP of product development at Napster  maps out what happened to the company, how they pleaded with the music industry to provide a better solution to them (which was more or less reinvented/reimplemented many years later by iTunes) and how the music industry had put itself in such a position as to be literally unable to act in its own best interests, or the interests of its artists.    Dodge estimates, based on internal Napster research, that Napster could have generated $3 billion per year for the industry, with minimal overhead.

I talk to people at copyright conferences and they will make some observation such as copyright has managed to support specific identified individuals and therefore it’s a good thing (most recently it was specific teachers whose retirement was funded by their textbook sales).   However, to rely on this sort of evidence in policy making is basic bad practice.  It seeks out only the evidence which supports the proposition, when it should be critically analysing it.  A proper analysis would look at how many people paid more than they ought to have for a book, and whether some people went without because the cost was too high.  Moreover, it would look at the also-rans who devoted much time to writing a textbook only to have it fail in the market.  It would look at the books which were substandard and were not improved because of copyright restrictions.  For every success there are orders of magnitude more failures.  Proper policy would be more circumspect in trying to entice, through the incentive of copyright, the unwary into the market.

Copyright costs the community.  That cost is never factored into any copyright policy – at least, so far as I have been able to tell.  Most recently, the prohibition on parallel importing of books is an obvious example.  The Productivity Commission put out a report which set out, in bare, incontrovertible terms, the damage that this particular aspect of copyright does to the community.  After a long period of merciless lobbying the proposals to remove the anti-consumer restrictions on parallel importing have been defeated (ironically, the report was criticised for being considered analysis, it was even expanded to cover some of the criticisms of it).

Copyright, and IP policy in general seems to exist in a twilight zone in which reality is not permitted to reach.   Copyright holders have express exemptions to the Trade Practices Act that property owners can only dream of.   They are funded by the government to lobby for more copyright and then, of course, use their monopoly profits to lobby for more funding.  They are allowed to sing the benefits while policy makers fail to even seek out evidence of the costs.   Despite the concept of natural rights of copyright being expressly repudiated by parliament and judiciary they are allowed to persist in their rhetoric of rights.  Despite the copyright monopoly having little in common with property, they continue to talk as if it does.

In the case of Napster, the copyright monopoly seems to have delayed the innovation we now call iTunes by a good part of a decade, and diddled musicians out of billions of dollars in the process, but copyright ideologues will not hear of it.

[Update: Professor Alan Fels (the former head of the Competition and Consumer Commission) is quoted as being critical of the parallel import decision:

Professor Fels said the decision to explicitly reject a recommendation of the Productivity Commission meant that ”every time one of our more than 10 million book readers visit a bookshop and pay more for books, the Government will be and should be held responsible”.

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7 Responses to “Copyright and Confirmation Bias”


  1. 1 Purple Library Guy 14 November 2009 at 7:15 am

    It seems to me this PIR business has little to do with copyright. PIRs seem to be a protectionist measure intended to protect local manufacturers (specifically book printers) from foreign competition). It’s about trade, and whether globalized free trade is better than protectionism.
    This is a question that was considered largely settled by most for at least three decades, but the fruit of those three decades should perhaps give us pause. The result of the strong free trade push seems to have been that developed countries end up losing jobs and prosperity because they stop producing, while third world countries meet production demand by forcing peasants off their land and leaving them no option but sweatshop work for near-zero pay in horrific conditions. I’d say people were better off and economies less unstable back when protectionism was common. There’s something to be said for keeping your economy in house, where you can set meaningful labour, environmental etc. standards to ensure that production results in general prosperity.
    It does not surprise me that something called a “productivity commission” favours the standard mainstream-economist free trade line. But again, PIR seems to me to have little to do with copyright as such–you could revoke copyright entirely and still maintain this arrangement. It governs right to import, not right to copy.
    If the problem is a concentrated few foreign-owned Australian printers overcharging, the problem would seem to be with industry concentration, and should be dealt with by eliminating barriers to entry (including perhaps counterproductive copyright laws), enforcing and strengthening antitrust laws, taking measures to reduce foreign ownership of Australian firms, even nationalizing. Jettisoning local production and jobs isn’t a positive solution.

    • 2 Brad 22 November 2009 at 8:11 pm

      Copyright is relevant to restrictions on the parallel importation of books because copyright grants the owner an automatic *monopoly* over the product. Most other types of products for sale don’t have this wide-ranging style of government protection.


  1. 1 Glyn Moody (glynmoody) 's status on Wednesday, 11-Nov-09 09:39:02 UTC - Identi.ca Trackback on 11 November 2009 at 7:39 pm
  2. 2 Tweets that mention Copyright and Confirmation Bias « Brendan Scott’s Weblog -- Topsy.com Trackback on 11 November 2009 at 7:49 pm
  3. 3 uberVU - social comments Trackback on 12 November 2009 at 3:12 am
  4. 4 Roy Schestowitz (schestowitz) 's status on Wednesday, 11-Nov-09 19:26:11 UTC - Identi.ca Trackback on 12 November 2009 at 5:26 am
  5. 5 No Cost Too Great for Copyright « Brendan Scott’s Weblog Trackback on 2 December 2009 at 1:08 pm

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