The Utility of Copyright

The Utility of Copyright

There are discoveries made almost every day that make the world a better place to live in. We are constantly improving our lot, and the lot of those around us. Consider pennicillin. It was a true 'discovery' not an invention, in that it had always existed. But once its use was found, things improved. A lot. Millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics.

I believe that digital information processing is such a discovery. The effects are perhaps not as apparent, but I hold that the discovery of the digital computer and of information processing has made (and is making) this world better.

Discoveries, in their nature, are like that. They need not come at a cost; the world is just becomes a bit bigger, wider, better when they happen.

In the early 1990s, digital music was in its infancy. Then came the adoption of mp3, napster, lawsuits, and the current situation - widespread, pervasive copyright infringement. That music could be replicated for almost no cost was a discovery.

The world is bigger because of it. The world is also different because of it.

A utilitarian is said to have a calculus to determine the moral worth of actions. Previously, the calculus for copyright went something like this:

That content producers benefit greatly, and that a few people benefit from the content, and that content so continues to be produced; these things outweigh the natural freedoms everyone has with regard to such content. We should, therefore, put in place restrictions on the copying of content.

With the ability to copy more easily, cheaply, and in greater numbers, the calculus changes. A single piece of content can now serve every human being alive; it need only be digital, and be made available. In other words, our ability to copy affects how many people can benefit from such copying. And this means we must re-evaluate in favour of the greater good.

The freedom to copy would have always benefited some people. But now, "some" can actually be "everyone but the content producers". And that changes things. That copyright should not exist becomes a classic utilitarian decision: less utility for a few people, with a little more for everyone.