January 28, 2004

The Facts Belong to Us

More public service from Rep. Billy Tauzin (currently R-LA, soon to be R-Pharmaceuticals): the Database and Collections of Information Misappropriation Act, H.R. 3261. This destructive and completely unnecessary piece of legislation would create a new class of informational property rights in databases, and allow the property-holders to sue people who used that information in any way which reduced its commercial value. The EFF is not happy, and neither is Public Knowledge, and indeed nobody who uses a database should be; the EFF makes it easy to share your unhappiness with your Representative. The pro-DCIMA analysis by the Copyright Office is laughably bad, though one admires, in a mercy-for-the-patricidal-orphans way, someone who can say that intellectual property rights have not been strengthened over the last ten years.

The vileness of this idea, from the standpoint of the development of knowledge and culture, and the ability of a free people to carry on democratic debate, speaks for itself. But let's be grubbily economic --- will it even make us, as a whole, any richer? Well, no; and it takes about three minutes to see why. In a free market economy, there is a problem with producing informational goods, which is that once someone buys it from you, they can produce copies themselves, and copying is much, much cheaper than original production. So the price of information will fall to the price of reproduction, and nobody recovers their original costs, and market forces will not produce as much information as its social utility would justify. The main solutions are (1) non-monetary incentives for production, (2) public financing of public goods, or (3) government intervention in the free market by the creation of arbitrary, legally-compelling monopolies, otherwise known as intellectual property rights. Now (1) gets us some art, but few people are driven to write how-to books or compile pricing guides, and even if they are it's good for them to be able to make a living doing so. (2) brought us the scientific and technological revolutions of the 20th century, but again it's more suitable for inventing things like molecular biology and the Internet that than, say, writing pricing guides. (3) has been very successful in many areas, but it's structurally prone to abuse. As anyone who's read Adam Smith knows, the problem with legal monopolies is that it is often a better deal for the monopolists to spend their time, effort and cash on manipulating the government to strengthen and extend their monopoly, rather than improving their products. There is no reason to expect them to not push their monopoly powers far beyond what is actually socially beneficial: the gains are very concentrated, viz., among the monopolists, whereas the costs are wide-spread, falling on everybody else, so the general interest will go to the wall. I think we're well past that point with copyrights and patents, but that's another story for another day. (If you want to read this kind of argument made with all the rigor of which neo-classical economics is capable, try the school of Douglass North.)

So, to recap: creating and extending these monopolies is only good, i.e., enriching, policy if the alternative is to have those goods undersupplied. I defy anyone to look at America today and tell me, with a straight face, that our problem is that we have too few commercial databases. However, as a way of enriching narrow interests at the expense of the public, market efficiency, knowledge and, yes, democracy, it's hard to beat. (For instance, it seems to me that Elsevier and Kluwer could use it to successfully sue the authors of this paper.) I realize it's just "yet another poke in the eye for freedom, justice, and the American Way", but some outraged opposition seems called for.

The Dismal Science ; The Running-Dogs of Reaction

Posted at January 28, 2004 10:50 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth