Dan McTeague wants gas prices down, copyright prices up?

I have had a Google Alerts for Dan McTeague for a few months, since I heard he was promoting a form of policy counterfeiting by confusing counterfeiting, commercial copyright piracy, non-commercial illegal sharing, patent, trademark, and other quite different areas of law. Most of the alerts talk about gas prices, and how he believes they should be lower.

This got me to thinking about the parallels between energy policy and copyright policy, and how Mr. McTeague, MP for Pickering-Scarborough East and the Liberal Consumer Affairs Critic, seems to not yet have an adequate understanding of these issues.

For most of the economy, energy and copyright are expenses. The lower they are able to bring these expenses, the lower they are able to make their own prices, the greater their profits and the better it is for the economy. While high prices benefit the producers, lower prices would benefit the economy as a whole.

For both energy and copyright there are a wide variety of options available for users/consumers.

As one example area in copyright, for productivity software there are producers using older methods of production, distribution and funding from the industrial era where they charge users of the software per copy. A popular example would be software from Microsoft or Apple. As an alternative there are companies and individuals using modern methods of production (such as peer production, methods of distribution such as peer distribution, and royalty-free business models (where people charge once for the time to create the work, and do not count or charge for copies). The fastest growing part of the productivity software marketplace, and what most of the largest websites on the Internet are built upon, is Free/Libre and Open Source Software.

In both cases, demanding dominant incumbent producers lower costs is simply never going to work. As a society we really need to embrace (and sometimes even subsidize in the short term) alternatives which will not only offer lower prices because of the use of these alternatives, but also drive the incumbent producers to lower prices in order to compete.

We need to be looking at full cost accounting methodologies to ensure that the actual costs of a given choice are reflected in the price. For energy policy this becomes part of the Green Tax Shift which Liberal leader Dion is finally talking about. For copyright policy this includes ensuring that it is copyright holders that pay the full costs of investigation and enforcement of their licensing agreements. This is the opposite of the policy promoted in the mislabelled Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreements (ACTA) which, among other bad policies, seeks to transfer additional costs of investigation and enforcement onto taxpayers. If anything we should be shifting taxes onto larger copyright holders to pay the existing externalized costs, not offering greater handouts to increasingly outdated businesses. There has also been proposals around an “intellectual property tax” which could be tied to a percentage of royalty payments as well as fixed fees at renewal time.

Both energy and copyright policies have global implications, both in terms of the implications of domestic policy on other countries, but also of our participation in various treaties.. While there is a growing understanding of the environmental, economic and social implications of choices in energy policy, we have only begun to understand copyright policy. A speech by Eben Moglen at the launch of the new GNU General Public License helps to articulate some of these larger economic and social implications. Part of his speech included the following question:

“Why is it ever moral to deprive people of that which they could have for nothing and which they wish to have, and you already have made? If you could feed everyone by baking one loaf of bread, and pressing a button, what would be the moral case for permitting the price of bread to be higher than the poorest hungry person could pay?”

This brings me back to Dan McTeague. In the roll of Consumers affairs critic, I understand why he is concerned with counterfeiting. A counterfeit is an imitation that is made usually with the intent to deceptively represent its content or origins. It is best understood as an offence against the consumer, rather than the producer.

Counterfeiting is entirely different from copyright and patent policy where infringement is an offence against the producer, not the consumer. When McTeague is promoting a narrow subset of business models for producers of copyrighted works, as he seems to do often with his allies in the legacy music recording and related industries, he is acting against the interests of consumers and Canadian society who are better served by enabling/promoting competing alternatives and lower prices.

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