Giants’ shoulders

I have long admired John Kay, Financial Times columnist, on these issues, and here is a recent column of his on innovation and copyright, which finishes with a few words of advice for Andrew Gowers:

It has made me think again about Bob’s question of a few days ago. In response to my assertion that we need a rich cultural commons, Bob Croxford says,

‘Why? How does this help encourage works of original authorship?’

In the same issue of the FT as Kay’s column (October 13), an editorial called ‘Threat to free speech’ found itself alongside a letter from a list of performers’, writers’, directors’, and composers’ organisations, entitled, ‘Worrying rise in hostility towards copyright’. The latter were writing to complain about an earlier letter from leaders in the European ICT industries calling for an end to ‘the system of copyright levies imposed on digital products as compensation to content rightholders for private copying by consumers’ which they said was ‘a serious impediment to the development of Europe’s digital economy’. Without knowing it, they said, consumers were paying ‘twice, sometimes more, to compensate for private copying.’ The current rights-holders were arguing that there was no credible alternative method for ensuring that ‘Europe’s artistic community’ was remunerated.

Both sides claim to have the ‘interests of consumers’ on their side. I am fairly sure that private copying is important for the encouragement of future works of original authorship – but have no evidence for saying this. Whether, had they known that they may be paying twice to compensate artists for private copying, consumers would be happy to do this, if threatened with a decrease in ‘creative production’… we can only guess. But consumers’ voices, perhaps calling for different things, were not to be heard in this exchange. Who can represent them?

The editorial meanwhile, was calling on France to ‘renounce an attempt to legislate history’. France’s National Assembly had just backed a bill that could ‘jail people for a year for denying that there was an Armenian gonocide early last century.’ The move, the editorial argued, ‘was an attempt to use legislation rather than persuasion to change others’ beliefs – a tactic already proving counterproductive in Turkey and running counter to Europe’s traditions of free expression and open debate.’ The editorial continues that the legislation is likely to die in the French senate and congratulates President Jacques Chirac’s government for repudiating the genocide bill – ‘strong-arm tactics’ which it says can only bolster Turkey’s intolerance of any mention of Armenian genocide. And it ends with a ringing exhortation to the ‘rest of the political class’, to ‘renounce the idea of legal curbs on what people say or think’.

I was struck by the coincidence of these two pieces on one page. In their different ways, I think they raise the challenge for modern democratic societies of giving people, first a chance to make up their own minds, and second, a voice. The very best way to do the first is not to tell people what they must think, but to give them a chance to decide between different arguments. This is also, as it happens, the best way to ‘encourage original works of authorship’. ‘Original’ doesn’t mean a lightning strike of genius as if from nowhere – it is much more likely to mean, an idea or set of ideas set in train by a rich context of intellectual stimulants. The uniqueness, and the quality, comes from the mix that is being creatively remixed, rather than the isolation of the author, hedged about with exclusive ownership claims.

I think this is a very important distinction, and a good reason why we need less gatekeepers about what we think and say, and many more opportunities to share different cultural experiences. This kind of cultural exchange and diversity in general is what makes for originality and smartness: it can be promoted by cultural commons thinking.

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