First-mover advantage in the arts means copyright isn’t necessary to protect innovative creativity

One of the arguments sometimes made in defence of copyright is that without it, creators would be unable to compete with the hordes of copycats that would spring up as soon as their works became popular. Copyright is needed, supporters say, to prevent less innovative creators from producing works that are closely based on new, successful ideas. However, this approach has led to constant arguments and court cases over how close a “closely based” work can be before it infringes on the copyright of others. A good example of this is the 2022 lawsuit involving Ed Sheeran, where is was argued that using just four notes of a scale constituted copyright infringement of someone else’s song employing the same tiny motif. A fascinating new paper looks at things from a different angle. It draws on the idea of “first-mover advantage”, the fact that:

individuals that move to a new market niche early on (“first movers”) obtain advantages that may lead to larger success, compared to those who move to this niche later. First movers enjoy a temporary near-monopoly: since they enter a niche early, they have little to no competition, and so they can charge larger prices and spend more time building a loyal customer base.

The paper explores the idea in detail for the world of music. Here, first-mover advantage means:

The artists and music producers who recognize the hidden potential of a new artistic technique, genre, or style, have bigger chances of reaching success. Having an artistic innovation that your competitors do not have or cannot quickly acquire may become advantageous on the winner-take-all artistic market.

Analysing nearly 700,000 songs across 110 different musical genres, the researchers found evidence that first-mover advantage was present in 91 of the genres. The authors point out that there is also anecdotal evidence of first-mover advantage in other arts:

For example, Agatha Christie—one of the recognized founders of “classical” detective novel—is also one of the best-selling authors ever. Similarly, William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer—a canonical work in the genre of cyberpunk—is also one of the earliest books in this strand of science fiction. In films, the cult classic The Blair Witch Project is the first recognized member of the highly successful genre of found-footage horror fiction.

Although copyright may be present, first-mover advantage does not require it to operate – it is simply a function of being early with a new idea, which means that competition is scarce or non-existent. If further research confirms the wider presence of first-mover advantage in the creative world – for example, even where sharing-friendly CC licences are used – it will knock down yet another flimsy defence of copyright’s flawed and outdated intellectual monopoly.

Featured image by Stable Diffusion.

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