Thursday, 19 January 2012

Some thoughts on toll bridges and copyright

Driving home from City Hall this afternoon I listened to a sweet little interview with a woman who had bought a toll bridge.

Grahame Penny and Maggie Taylor paid £403,000 for the Whitney-on-Wye bridge between Hereford and Hay-on-Wye. The crossing, which comes with a two-bedroom cottage and 1.1 acres, was built in 1779 and was granted exemption from tax by an Act of Parliament as it was privately funded.  It brings in around £2,000 per week but the couple will have to pay for annual maintenance and any staff costs.

It seemed to me that this little property might help us to understand the debate that carries on about copyright and intellectual property. But more of that in a minute – firstly we need to understand that ‘property’ is not a thing but a ‘right’. The access to my house is across land in the ownership of others but that access is my property – I do not own the land but own the right to cross that land so as to reach my house. I cannot parcel up that right but I can, should I wish, sell it -  which is what Bradford Council does with the right to fish in Chellow Dene reservoirs.

Mr Penny & Mrs Taylor own a bridge across the Wye and are permitted by law to charge you for the use of that bridge. When you drive up and hand over the necessary 80 pence, you are permitted – you have bought the right – to cross the bridge. Just once – if you come along tomorrow, you will have to pay again to have the right to cross the bridge.

Similarly, when I go to the cinema I buy a ticket allowing me to watch a particular film once and once only. If I want to watch that film again, I have to pay again just as I do with the toll bridge. And the same applies to a host of other rights to make use of another’s property – railway tickets, amusement parks, football matches and theatrical performances all spring to mind in this regard. Indeed, we even have to pay to use the lavatory.

All of these are examples where the right to use a particular “resource” is granted to the purchaser on a limited basis – most usually one use but it could be unlimited uses for a given period of time or a pre-determined number of uses. Copyright operates under the same principle – when you buy something ‘created’ by someone else it could be for your exclusive use or more typically for your use alone. Just as your 80p gets you one trip across Mr Penny & Mrs Taylor’s bridge, the money you hand over for an e-book to go on your kindle give you the use of that work and no-one else.

Without this protection, how are we to prevent you taking that e-book and selling it yourself? Not just to Mrs Smith next door but to thousands of others – all of whom might have bought the book. Even worse, you may choose to simply give the e-book away to anyone who wants it completely destroying the opportunity for the creator to benefit from his efforts. And it doesn’t really matter whether the creator is a multi-billion dollar film studio or a penniless writer in a damp flat.

If the creator chooses to let you use his work on this basis that is his right. But to suggest that he should have his right curtailed because “information wants to be free” is to create a circumstance where a man cannot profit from his own creativity. There is a case for debating what is covered by copyright – is a musical performance copyright or merely the music itself, for example – but the concept is absolutely central to the success of service economies.

The problem is not one of principle – copyright remains important – but of enforcement. Put simply, the on-line world makes it more and more difficult to police copyright effectively. And, as we have seen with the music industry, this pressure results in a dramatic change in business model. It is safe to bet that the same problem will be faced by the book publishing industry (the journal publishing business started its change and began its debate some twenty years ago) and the film industry.

And the main impact of this will be to make the published, copyright-compliant product much cheaper. Which is as it should be – instead of paying several thousand pounds for a subscription to the Journal of Consumer Marketing, the library now pays the same price for access to over 100 journals in that publishers portfolio. And the same will apply with music, books and films.

But this is not about getting rid of copyright, it is about the business models needed in an environment where the comprehensive policing of copyright simply isn’t an option.

However, we still have to remember that the more free riders, the less likely people are to create. To return to our toll bridge, Mr Penny & Mrs Taylor face competition from free bridges elsewhere on the river but that isn’t an argument for removing their rights.  So why should that fact that the web has led to an increase in free riders mean that copyright owners should lose their rights?



Grandad said...

I am purely playing Devil's Advocate here, but is there not an argument that a free bridge further down the river could be of benefit? I could then drive down to that other bridge to sample the scenery on the other bank of the river. If I like what I see, I will of course pay the toll from then on as I don't fancy the long trip.

Just an idle thought...?

Twenty_Rothmans said...

You are very perspicative for a Grandad.

I have hundreds of Android apps. I have not paid for one, nor have I stolen any.

Quite how this business model works, I don not know, but I would never buy anything with DRM/licence keys etc again. It's too much hassle.