Has file-sharing helped society? Looked at from the narrow perspective of existing record labels, the question must seem absurd; profits have dropped sharply in the years since tools like Napster first appeared. But a pair of well-known academics argue peer-to-peer file sharing has weakened copyright in the US… and managed to benefit all of us at the same time.
Nate Anderson reports on new research. The original article contains many useful links.
“Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf presented a recent paper at a music business conference in Vienna that tried to answer this question empirically. By charting the production of new books, new music albums, and new feature films over the last decade, the authors tried to see whether creative output went up or down in correlation with file-sharing.
“Data on the supply of new works are consistent with our argument that file sharing did not discourage authors and publishers,” they write in their paper, “File-sharing and Copyright” (PDF).
“The publication of new books rose by 66 percent over the 2002-2007 period. Since 2000, the annual release of new music albums has more than doubled, and worldwide feature film production is up by more than 30 percent since 2003… In our reading of the evidence there is little to suggest that the new technology has discouraged artistic production. Weaker copyright protection, it seems, has benefited society.”
The authors don’t claim (anymore) that file-sharing has no effect on industries like recorded music. Though both authors also collaborated on a now-famous paper from 2007 which argued that file-sharing had no appreciable impact on music sales, they are willing to concede now that it might be a small part of the industry’s problems.
Indeed, they round up a host of studies from the past few years suggesting that, on average, one-fifth of declining music sales might be chalked up to piracy. (The rise of new entertainment options like video game has also hurt the business, and consumers finally stopped “re-buying” old albums on CD by the mid-2000s.)
But looking at such declines provides only a narrow view. Looked at more broadly, the music industry “has grown considerably” in the last few years. When concert revenue is added to recorded music revenue, the authors note that the overall industry grew more than 5 percent between 1997 and 2007.
That’s in large part because consumers’ willingness to pay for “complements” like concerts and merchandise goes up as the price of music and movies falls, and because consumers are exposed to many more artists when prices are low or nonexistent.
Even if the music industry was shrinking, though, the authors point out that creativity has not declined—which suggests that weaker copyright can still promote the “Progress” sought by the Founders.
“We do not yet have a full understanding of the mechanisms by which file-sharing may have altered the incentives to produce entertainment,” conclude the authors. “However, in the industry with the largest purported impact—music—consumer access to recordings has vastly improved since the advent of file-sharing. Since 2000, the number of recordings produced has more than doubled. In our view, this makes it difficult to argue that weaker copyright protection has had a negative impact on artists’ incentives to be creative.”
The article ends with the counter-arguments of the music industry, see here.