Copyrights & Patents Have Become A Religion; All Data Will Be Ignored

If you’ve read Techdirt for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that intellectual property laws have been decoupled from logic for several years now. Because the entities heavily-reliant on IP protections (and who mostly serve as gatekeepers and middlemen, rather than perform any creative work of their own) have trouble producing evidence that extended copyright terms or increased enforcement efforts are actually instrumental to the creation of future artistic works, they have tended to fall back on assertions that various governments have a “duty” to protect their interests.

It’s not an assertion borne of data or extensive research. It’s a statement of faith. Record labels and movie studios spend millions every year issuing takedowns and lobbying for favorable laws. And every year, they fail to point out where these efforts have added to the bottom line. When confronted with this lack of evidence, they’ll often declare this is only because we’re not doing the things that aren’t working hard enough or often enough or with enough severity.

Mark Lemley, whose work — especially that focused on the broken patent system — has been featured here before, has just published a paper examining this thought process: Faith-based Intellectual Property.

Lemley opens by noting that we supposedly live in an “age of reason,” with a wealth of information and powerful data tools at our fingertips. But when the data fails to produce the desired evidence for increased IP protections, reason is swiftly abandoned and replaced with nothing more than unfounded beliefs.

This isn’t just a post-file sharing phenomenon. This dates back more than a half-century.

Fritz Machlup, commissioned by Congress in the 1950s to evaluate the patent system, came to the strikingly wishy-washy conclusion that if we didn’t have a patent system, the evidence wouldn’t justify creating one, but since we had one the evidence didn’t justify abolishing it.

There’s more evidence available now than there was 60 years ago, but nothing’s improved.

The upshot of all this evidence is something rather less than a complete vindication of the theory of IP regulation… This doesn’t mean that we are no better off than we were in Fritz Machlup’s day. The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough evidence, or the right kind of evidence. The problem is that the picture the evidence paints is a complicated one. The relationship between patents and innovation seems to depend greatly on industry; some evidence suggests that the patent system is worth the cost in the biomedical industries but not elsewhere. Copyright industries seem to vary widely in how well they are responding to the challenge of the Internet, and their profitability doesn’t seem obviously related to the ease or frequency of piracy… Money doesn’t seem to be the prime motivator for most creators, and sometimes it can even suppress creativity. And an amazing number of people seem perfectly happy to create and share their work for free now that the Internet has given them the means to do so.

Despite the lack of clear indicators that strengthened IP laws result in more creativity, or at least, more profitability for industries which rely heavily on IP protections, the push for expanded terms and more draconian IP-enforcement penalties hasn’t let up. When the available data doesn’t support held beliefs, there are options.

Shoot the messenger:

A lesson I learned early in my academic career is that while people will dispute, ignore, or shrug off policy arguments they disagree with, they get really incensed when the data disagrees with them. And one way they can justify ignoring that data is to persuade themselves that the source of that data must be biased in some way and so their numbers cannot be trusted. The most vitriolic attacks I have experienced in more than twenty years as a law professor were directed at the most innocuous-seeming papers—papers that presented data that revealed some uncomfortable facts about the status quo.

Someone can be paid to produce data that agrees with held views.

A second reaction to data you don’t like is to try to go out and buy some of your own. Companies with a vested interest in a system that empirical evidence calls into question have been spending a great deal of money to fund studies written (sometimes preposterously) to lead to the conclusion they support.

Or, you know, ‘find God,” as it were…

Participants on both sides of the IP debates are increasingly staking out positions that simply do not depend on evidence at all. That is, their response to evidence that doesn’t accord with their beliefs is not to question their beliefs, or even to question the evidence, but to retreat to a belief system that doesn’t require evidence at all.

Lemley quotes Berkely’s Rob Merges, a leading patent scholar — one who turned to faith when the data didn’t support his predispositions.

After decades at the forefront of economic analysis of the patent system, Merges threw up his hands: “Try as I might, I simply cannot justify our current IP system on the basis of verifiable data showing that people are better off with IP law than they would be without it.” While one might think that the logical thing to do if the evidence doesn’t support one’s theory is to question the theory, Merges instead observes that “through all the doubts over empirical proof, my faith in the necessity and importance of IP law has only grown.”

With adherents like these, who needs evidence? What were once a limited rights, granted for the betterment of all, are now an expansive rights, benefitting only a select few. Any lack of supporting evidence is no longer germane to the argument. IP rights are now being controlled by those who “feel” or “believe” in the fundamental “rightness” of their arguments. Data need not apply.

The adherents of this new religion believe in IP. They don’t believe it is better for the world than other systems, or that it encourages more innovation. Rather, they believe in IP as an end in itself—that IP is some kind of prepolitical right to which inventors and creators are entitled.

There’s a reason why religions and governments shouldn’t be allowed to intermingle. This adherence to the “moral” rights of creators plays hell with the system.

It intervenes in the market to interfere with the freedom of others to do what they want in hopes of achieving the end of encouraging creativity. If we take that purpose out of the equation, we are left with a belief system that says the government should restrict your speech and freedom of action in favor of mine, not because doing so will improve the world, but simply because I spoke first.

When the faithful guide the creation of legislation, bad things happen — things that undermine the societal benefits of limited rights for a limited amount of time. Those limits are no longer in place, and supposed protections like “fair use” give more value to intellectual property than freedom of expression. The system is broken and those exploiting it the most don’t want it fixed.

Trademark rights extend to prevent uses that would happily have coexisted fifty years ago. We have added a slew of new copyright statutes, expanding the term as well as the scope of protection, increasing penalties, and reaching conduct further and further removed from actual infringers. We issued six times as many patents in 2014 as we did three decades before, and most of the patent suits filed are brought by patent trolls, a category of plaintiffs that didn’t even exist forty years ago and that one might think has a weaker moral claim on IP than people who actually make products.

Unfortunately, Lemley realizes the ultimate futility of his research. While small factual misconceptions can often be corrected, adherents to any form of faith-based system (whether they be pro- or anti-IP) are almost impervious to arguments that run contrary to their beliefs — no matter how much data is provided.

If you are a true believer, we have nothing to say to each other. I don’t mean by that that I am giving up on you, deciding that you’re not worth my time to persuade. Rather, I mean that we simply cannot speak the same language. There is no principled way to compare one person’s claim to lost freedom to another’s claim to a right to ownership. Nor is there a way to weigh your claim of moral entitlement against evidence that the exercise of that right actually reduces creativity by others. Faith-based IP is at its base a religion and not a science because it does not admit the prospect of being proven wrong.

This where we are today: subject to laws written to accommodate true believers. The faithful that have been indulged in their expansion efforts even while a whole host of supposed “industry killers” have risen and fallen with little to no discernible damage done to entrenched IP-reliant industries.

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