An artistic freedom voucher to replace copyright?

A proposal by Dean Baker, excerpted from Al Jazeera:

“The market works best when items sell at their marginal cost. That means we maximize efficiency when recorded music, movies, video games and software are available to users at zero cost. The fees that the government allows copyright holders to impose create economic distortions in the same way that tariffs on imported cars or clothes lead to economic distortions.

The major difference is that the distortions from copyright protection are much larger. While tariffs on cars or clothes would rarely exceed 20-30 per cent, the additional cost imposed by copyright protection is the price of the product. Movies that would be free in a world without copyright protection can cost $20-$30. The same is true of video games, and the price of copyrighted software can run into the thousands of dollars.

In total, hundreds of billions of dollars a year flow from the rest of us to those with government-granted copyright monopolies, such as Disney, Time-Warner and Microsoft. This government-directed flow of money dwarfs the size of the items that gets tends to get Washington politicians hot under the collar, such as the Bush-era tax cuts to the wealthy.

Of course we need to pay creative workers, but we should find more efficient mechanisms, where a higher percentage of the cost borne by the public ends up in the workers’ pockets. Some alternatives already exist. There is much creative work in the United States and around the world that is supported directly by governments or private non-profits. For this work, writers, musicians, and other creative workers are paid for their work at the time they do it. There is no need for copyright protection.

However, we would clearly need much more funding if the flow of money from copyright protection were to be lost. One possibility is an artistic freedom voucher. This is a refundable tax credit of around $100 that each person could use to support the creative worker(s) of their choice. It would be similar to the charitable tax deduction, except it would be a credit. The condition of getting the money is that a worker would not be allowed to get copyright protection for a period of time (eg: five years).

A program such as this should generate a vast amount of material that would be freely available to the whole world. The powers of the government would no longer be used to bottle up the internet, and we would see the end of legislative disasters, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, which sought to make everyone into a copyright cop.

We would also need new mechanisms to support the development of software. Here, also, there is a vast amount of software developed each year that does not depend on copyright protection. Much of it is custom software for specific companies. Other software is explicitly developed to be freely available to the public.

Developing the best mechanisms for supporting creative work will take much thought and debate. But it is long past time that this process got started and time we move beyond a hopelessly antiquated copyright system.”

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