Rutgers University law professor Michael A. Carrier has published a very interesting paper called “Copyright and Innovation: The Untold Story” that is very much worth reading, regardless of whether you agree with its conclusions.
The core of Carrier’s argument is that “Copyright has an innovation problem,” as he puts it in the article’s abstract. Drawing largely on interviews with “31 CEOs, company founders, and vice-presidents from technology companies, the recording industry, and venture capital firms,” Carrier asserts that existing copyright law, and the way it has been applied by rights-holders and interpreted by the courts, has served to stifle innovation, particularly in the field of digital music distribution.
What stands out to this reader, however, is that the evidence provided in the paper makes a stronger case for entrenched corporate attitudes and reluctance to change on the part of record company executives as being to blame for the bemoaned lack of innovation.
For example, one of the quotes that seems both plausible and in keeping with observable evidence about the music industries approach to digital distribution platforms in the last 10 years or so reads as follows:
One respondent believed that the “business potential” and “shape the business ultimately took on” was “retarded and perverted” by the labels’ behavior. In particular, the labels “had an opportunity to achieve their dream of owning everything from content creation to distribution to sale” but “chose not to” in order to “eke out a few more years of CD sales.” This innovator thought that “the entertainment industry was probably unique” in this regard in that it “did not want a product.”
In light of the available evidence out there, this comment seems plausible to me — but does it really represent a way in which copyright law is stifling innovation? The law does not compel certain rights-holders to be resistant to the forward progress of technology, nor does it compel them to adopt short term thinking with respect to revenue generation or distribution platforms.
Don’t get me wrong — Carrier’s paper does present evidence to support its central claim that copyright law itself serves to put a damper on innovation, it’s just that I think he has made an even better case for corporate recalcitrance being the primary stumbling block to innovation. Either way, the paper is worth reading and mulling over, because it raises a lot of intriguing points, and provides a compelling glimpse (albeit an anonymous one) into the mindset of a group of people who have been at the center of the ongoing interplay between technological innovation, copyright law, public policy and entrepreneurship.