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The Strange Romance of IP Expansionism and Aesthetic Relativism

It’s easy to forget that IP is but one of many ways to “promote the progress of the arts and sciences.” Strong social norms may reward creativity or diligence with status. Governments or foundations may give prizes for innovation. Such incentives avoid the usual inefficiencies that arise when a patentee or copyrightholder can exclude all uses it wants to prevent, regardless of their negligible marginal cost.

Some economists have recommended a larger role for prizes in innovation policy. IP expansionists will grudgingly acknowledge such a role for, say, orphan drugs, but tend to draw the line at culture. How is government to know whose most deserving of subsidy? De gustibus non est disputandum!

Well, it seems to me that one can’t dismiss subsidies and cognate cultural policies so easily without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. If quality is really so indefinable, why even have IP in culture at all? Why not simply decide, as a culture, that what we have is enough, and there’s no need to incentivize new stuff? Why not just enjoy what we have?

One needn’t be a cultural pessimist to reach this laissez-faire nihilism. Rather, it’s the natural logic of aesthetic relativism.

5 thoughts on “The Strange Romance of IP Expansionism and Aesthetic Relativism”

  1. I’m really enjoying your posts, Frank.

    Re this one: Yep.

    And there’s even an interesting point here if you don’t take a relativistic approach to comparative quality. The existence of state and private monetary prizes and grants for certain ignored by “great” artists suggests that those artists are incapable of competing effectively in the existing system. Perhaps this is because their efforts (incentivized by whatever) are drowned out by other, less valuable products, incentivized by money are churned out and advertised by entertainment corporations.

    To the extent that our IP system leads a particular type of information product to dominate the cultural field, we may actually be worse off with the IP system than we would be without it, if (a big if) the information products that prevail in the existing system are of lesser quality than those that would prevail without that system.

    Arguably, people would be *better off* in a culture that makes less but where better information products (made for better reasons) are the ones that succeed in getting popular attention. Arguably…

  2. Thanks!

    I like the direction you’re pushing this. There’s a great piece by Guy Pessach (“Copyright’s Diversity Externalities”) that suggests this may be the case. A long time ago I wrote a piece called “Market and Culture: The Naivete of Neutrality,” which tried to buttress Benjamin Barber’s arguments (regarding the seductiveness of “McWorld’s” infotainment) by setting forth a “Gresham’s Law of bad culture.” I argued that “bad culture” would tend to drive out “good,” as “bad money” drives out good under Gresham’s Law.

    After reading Tyler Cowen’s salvos against cultural pessimism, I realize my argument needs to be more complex…so I’ve held off on developing that line of thought for a while. But I think that once we stop assuming that “more is always better,” there are many interesting directions we can take IP policy. I also think that there are limits on the very idea of “culture,” and that, ala Edgerton’s work on “Sick Societies,” we can apprehend some trends in entertainment that fall outside culture altogether.

  3. Frank,

    The post reminds me of a line of thought that I’ve quietly nurtured for several years without articulating publicly: Much of the resistance to IP expansionism has been premised, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, on the notion that the current IP regimes produce and/or support the “wrong” kind of culture. I was struck by this thought initially and particularly during the Congressional battle over copyright term extension, and it has stuck with me as the territory has shifted to TPM/DRM issues.

    Nurturing the line of thought doesn’t necessarily mean that the thought itself is wrong, or harmful. The thought does suggest to me, however, that opponents of IP expansionism need to deal with a rhetorical problem — that their position is, in some vague way, “elitist.”


  4. Mike,

    Yes, I think this could be shoehorned into the classic “What’s the Matter with Kansas” line: “those pointy-headed academics are trying to impose their values on plain folks!”

    But I also think this line of thought can tap a certain cultural conservatism or even populism. I am particularly heartened by the alliance between “liberal” groups that want to protect children from over-commercialization of their cultural environment, and “conservative” groups who want to give families more ability to shape children’s media experiences. (and think about how the Clean Flicks case brought them together against Hollywood’s illuminati!)

    As for cultural conservatism: there is a sense in many religious traditions that the past needs to be conserved, and that innovation should be suspect. Pope Benedict XIV recently spoke out for more traditional music in liturgy, and this letter suggests a similar caution:

    As for the populism: Hugo Chavez has prided himself on preserving Venezuelan culture; see

    Now, I’m not defending Chavez, or indeed any particular brand of cultural conservatism or populism. But I’m just trying to show that a sense that there is better and worse culture needn’t be elitist.

  5. Frank — I agree with your conclusion (“needn’t be”). But it’s often perceived that way, and that’s an issue that the debate needs to address. Mike

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