Friday, December 24, 2010

Nemo dat quod non habet (You cannot give what you do not have): err... who's to say you don't "have" an ebook that's in your file directory?

A law school buddy I've been hanging out with during the holiday break was surprised to learn that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series were actually well-written. Initially, I thought he was reading the original copy of the book --- he's more of a library person, you see (e.g. he claims he prefers to work on soft copies, but after I shared to him an ebook on international law, he proceeds to borrow the original hard copy from the UP library). Anyway, he was reading Harry Potter from an ebook he downloaded online. Yes, he didn't purchase it.

Envious at his leisure reading, I decided to engage in some educational reading myself. My ebook of choice is Economic Analysis of the Law: Selected Readings, edited by Wittman. The editor's introduction was quite promising: the collection supposedly creates a "unified vision of the law," which is "in contrast to law school, where torts, contracts, and corporate law, etc., are treated as completely separate fields, each with their own logic."

From the articles on intellectual property in the book, I quote this clincher:

"With intellectual property, the marginal cost of spreading an idea, record, or book is very low, especially in comparison to the cost of producing the first copy. Just think how expensive it is to produce the first copy of Microsoft Word (trademark) and how cheap it is to reproduce. . .William Landes and Richard Posner discuss the optimal protection of intellectual property rights given the costs and benefits inherent in the particular situation.

If there are no intellectual property rights, then the incentive to produce the song. book, etc. is greatly reduced but the intellectual property that is produced will be spread optimally. Subject to certain caveats, greater protection of intellectual property rights will increase the production of intellectual property, but will result in less than an optimal distribution. An important caveat is that if copyright protection were too expansive, say ideas were copyrightable, then the production of new ideas could be reduced because of greatly increased transaction costs (negotiation with the original holder of the idea or litigation in court to determine whether the new idea was really new). Not surprisingly then, ideas, plots, and book titles cannot be copyrighted. Landes and Posner not only consider the general outlines of copyright protection, but also explain many details (e.g., why music copyright is stronger then the copyright for books, why copyright holds for a particular length of time after an author’s death, and why there is a fair use doctrine)." (emphasis added)
So I kinda browsed through the entire section, but didn't actually delve into the nitty-gritty portions. Admittedly, I was more interested in other parts of the book on the environment. (I'm required to write a paper for my envi class.)

But the above excerpt makes me ponder about sharing and reading ebooks for academic purpose. Does reading for academic purposes have a more legitimate claim on fair use over reading for leisure purposes? Don't all reading have academic value? What is an author's incentive for writing a book? I believe it concerns artistic expression or academic distinction more than money, and it's the publisher who's more interested in the big bucks. But why should a publisher be entitled to earn large margins? And what is the economic incentive for purchasing v. downloading ebooks? I think, when it comes to ebooks, the real market forces should be allowed to thrive. No copyright = free flow of ideas = more information to work on = more information. More production, more distribution, more production.

Salma F. Angkaya
Entry # 6

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