How to use today’s debate about AI to fix yesterday’s mistakes in copyright legislation

Copyright is starting to become a hot topic in the world of generative AI, as the usual culprits start demanding yet more protection for their intellectual monopolies. There’s an interesting meditation on this development and its implications by Dean Baker, Senior Economist at the Center for Economic Policy Research, which he co-founded in 1999. His starting points are the following:

Creative workers need to be compensated for their work;

Copyright monopolies may not be the best route, especially in a world with AI;

There are alternative mechanisms that we already use and which could be expanded.

After running through some of the problems with the current system of remunerating artists, he proposes building on the existing idea of charitable contribution tax deductions, which is a way the US and other governments support a wide variety of non-profit organisations through the tax system. Baker suggests:

Instead of having a tax deduction, we could create a tax credit, say $100 to $200 per person. And, we could stipulate that the credit can only be used to support creative workers or organizations that support creative work. The latter could be organizations that commit themselves to supporting say, mystery writers or country music singers, which would serve as intermediaries for people who don’t want to use their credit for supporting specific individuals.

To be eligible to receive this new funding, a person would have to fulfil two conditions. First, they would have to register in the same way that they have to register now to get tax exempt status. The second condition is bold and innovative:

workers would lose copyright protection for the time they are in the tax credit system and a substantial period (e.g. five years) afterwards. The point is that we only subsidize creative work once. If we pay the worker to produce a book or movie or song, we don’t have to pay them a second time by granting them a copyright monopoly.

The logic of having a ban on copyright protection for a period after being in the system is to avoid having people using the tax credit system as an effective farm system, where they develop a reputation and then join the copyright system. They would still have the option to change systems, but they would have to wait for a period of time.

Baker addresses some of the possible concerns with his new approach, and concludes with the following thought about why the current debate around the role of copyright in the digital world is a perfect opportunity to correct earlier mistakes in this area, discussed at length in Walled Culture (digital versions available as free download):

the key point is that we should not treat our current rules on intellectual property as set in stone. When the Internet first became an important development in the 1990s, at the urging of the music industry, Congress rushed to pass the Digital Millennial Copyright Act, to ensure that copyrights would be enforced on the web. This limited the potential of the Internet as a means to freely transfer information, articles, books, music, and movies and other digital material.

Now we are hearing similar concerns about how AI will affect the value of copyrighted material. Rather than limiting AI, it might be more appropriate to reconsider copyright and determine whether it is still the best mechanism for supporting creative work. As I argue here, there are good reasons for thinking that is not the case.

This is a debate that is likely to grow louder and more heated, so it’s good to have Baker’s calm but thought-provoking input.

Featured image created with Stable Diffusion.

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