Skip to content

Cultural Exceptionalism

I’ve been discussing iPod compatibility over at Jurisdynamics with Josh Wright, who offers a good defense both of Apple’s business practices, and governmental nonintervention, in economic terms. Though I’ve tried to translate some social concerns into economic terms in recent articles, I think I’m beginning to reach the limits of this effort. There simply seem to be too many “irreducibly social goods” that are not amenable to being discussed as costs or benefits to individual persons. Instead, these conditions (such as a diversity of content) rightly (or wrongly) shape how–or whether we are able to–judge things to be harms or benefits.

Consider, for instance, this article on a crisis in art history publishing. Fewer and fewer monographs are being published, and apparently copyright law bears much of the blame:

Ms. Ballon and Ms. Westermann have concluded that if art-history publishing is to thrive, gatekeepers of the visual must loosen their death grip on images. “We’re quite clear now that the biggest obstacle is the copyright obstacle,” says Ms. Ballon. “Until you clear that obstacle away, you can’t deal with the other issues.”

What’s interesting to note here is the indifference of conventional economic models to different licensing policies that end up generating the same amount of revenues. If, say, permissions for books are roughly $100,000 per book, and 10 books per year are published, or they are $1,000 per book, and 1,000 books per year are published, that looks about the same economically. But it makes all the difference in the world to art history graduate students, who face almost impossible odds of getting published in the first world, and a much better chance of getting their ideas out in the second.

Pace Mark Fowler, TV is more than a toaster with pictures. Why do many think that economic models developed before the internet (for the analysis of product markets) can be applied without remainder to digital innovation (for the analysis of cultural markets)?