Lawrence Lessig, in the future of ideas


From the beginning of chapter 13:

In the 1970’s RCA was experimenting with a new technology for distributing film on magnetic tape — what we would come to call video. Researchers were keen not only to find a technology that could reproduce film with high fidelity; they were also keen to find a way to control the use of the technology. Their aim was a technology that could control the use of film distributed on video, so that the owner of the film could maximize the return from the distribution.

The technology eventually chosen was relatively simple. A video would play once, and when finished, the film would lock into place. If a renter of the video wanted to play the video again, he or she would have to return the video to the store and have the tape unlocked. In this way, the owner of the film could assure it was being compensated for every use of the copyrighted material.

RCA presented this technology to the Disney Corporation in the early 1970s. In a room with just five of the senior executives from Disney, a young RCA executive, Pat Feely, demonstrated RCA’s device. The executives were horrified. They would “never”, Feely reports their saying, permit their content to be distributed in this form. For the content, however clever the self-locking tape player was, was still insufficiently controlled. “How could they know,” a Disney executive asked Feely, “how many people are going to be sitting there watching” a film? “What’s to stop someone else coming in and watching it for free?”

Fashion, Food

From chapter 7:

Imagine for a moment that some upstart revolutionary proposed that we eliminate all intellectual property protection for fashion design. No longer could a designer secure federal copyright protection for the cut of a dress or the sleeve of a blouse. Unscrupulous mass-marketers could run off thousands of knockoff copies of any designer’s evening ensemble, and flood the marketplace with cheap imitations of haute couture. In the short run, perhaps, clothing prices would come down as legitimate designers tried to meet the prices of their freeriding competitors. In the long run, though, as we know all too well, the diminution of the incentives for designing new fashions would take its toll. Designers would still wish to design, at least initially, but clothing manufacturers with no exclusive rights to rely on would be reluctant to make the investment involved in manufacturing those designs and distributing them to the public. The dynamic American fashion industry would wither, and its most talented designers would forsake clothing design for some more remunerative calling like litigation. All of us would be forced to either wear last year’s garments year in and year out, or to import our clothing from abroad.

Or, perhaps, imagine that Congress suddenly repealed federal intellectual-property protection for food creations. Recipes would become common property. Downscale restaurants could freely recreate the signature chocolate desserts of their upscale sisters. Uncle Ben’s® would market Minute® Risotto (microwavable!); the [ Ladies’ Home Journal]{style=“font-style: italic”} would reprint recipes it had stolen from [Gourmet]{style=“font-style: italic”} magazine. Great chefs would be unable to find book publishers willing to buy their cookbooks. Then, expensive gourmet restaurants would reduce their prices to meet the prices of the competition; soon they would either close or fire their chefs to cut costs; promising young cooks would either move to Europe or get a day job (perhaps the law) and cook only on weekends. Ultimately, we would all be stuck eating Uncle Ben’s Minute Risotto® (eleven yummy flavors!!) for every meal.

But you’ve heard all of this before. It’s the same argument motion picture producers make about why we needed to extend the duration of copyright protection another twenty years; the same argument software publishers make about what will happen if we permit other software publishers to decompile and reverse-engineer their software products; the same argument database proprietors make about the huge social cost of failure to protect their rights to their data. Perhaps the most important reason why we have intellectual property protection is our conclusion that incentives are required to spur the creation and dissemination of a sufficient number and variety of intellectual creations like films, software, databases, fashions, and food.

Of course, we don’t give copyright protection to fashions or food. We never have.