THE BLOG

The Thief Next Door

11/13/2007 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yes, there is a thief next door. And across the street, too. There might even be one in your house. At least, that's the claim coming from music and film producers, who have been fighting against illegal music and video downloads--a.k.a. "file sharing"--for years, staring with legal action that put Napster out of business a few years back. It sounds reasonable: If you slipped a CD from Best Buy into your bulky jacket and walked out, everyone would call you a thief. So if someone posts the songs on that CD on the Internet, and thousands of people download it for free, there must be a thief somewhere in the picture. The industry argues that if they don't make money from legal sales, then the creative wellspring will dry up--it costs big money to make movies, to produce records, to identify and nurture new artists. They argue that strong intellectual property (IP) laws are needed to foster creativity. But is that true? What's often lost in the legal battles is any awareness of actual research on what might make our society more creative.

Around the world, the "creative industries" of music, movies, television, and videogames are big business. In the United States, a whopping eleven percent of GDP comes from the creative industries--twice the international average. So it's not surprising that of all countries, the U.S. has been most aggressive at enforcing intellectual property laws. If you think illegal file sharing is bad on college campuses, it pales in comparison to what is often called "piracy" in other countries--where people sneak cameras into movie theaters on opening night and then sell videotapes and CDs, openly and in public, the next day. Or where patented drugs, that make billions of dollars each year, are replicated on a mass scale in third-world factories at a fraction of the cost, with no royalties paid to the inventor. Or where fake Harry Potter books are published in Chinese, with names like Harry Potter and Leopard-Walk-Up-To-Dragon, with no permission and no royalties paid to J.K. Rowling.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, because I just returned from a high-profile conference at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Geneva, Switzerland. That's the United Nations agency that administers 24 different international treaties about patents, copyrights, and trademarks. I was invited there to talk about the creative process, and my comments were followed by the creator's perpective: next up were the Jamaican musician Shaggy and the Mexican film producer Carlos Davila. Our panel was followed with speakers from the videogame business, the movie business, and the music business. But something was missing. By the end of the conference, I realized what it was: everyone in the room agreed with each other, that the best way to foster creativity was to have strong protection for intellectual property. But there are strong voices around the world arguing that current IP laws are actively blocking innovation--and those voices were completely absent from the room.

In the legal realm, law school professor Lawrence Lessig has been the torchbearer for a loose international coalition that's arguing that current IP laws need to be changed. They argue that patent and copyright laws basically just benefit the big companies that hold the patents and copyrights, to the detriment of society's overall level of innovation. They propose alternatives like "open source" and "creative commons licensing." My own research on group genius suggests that they might be right, at least in part, when they argue that current IP laws don't align very well with how innovation works.

As a creativity researcher, I believe that creativity would dry up almost completely if creators didn't get some money for their efforts. For creators, it's not all about the money; the sheer love of creating is part of what keeps them going. But most musicians, and other creators, need money to buy little things like food and clothing. I need the royalties from my books just to pay the mortgage on my (modest) house; it took me two years to write my last book, and I can't afford to invest that amount of time and then give the book away. But I also think folks like Lessig are making an important argument, and one that's too often ignored in Washington (eleven percent of U.S. GDP can pay for a lot of lobbyists). If all music is free, then musical creativity will suffer, and ultimately the people who love music are the losers--and that's the thief next door, or maybe in your house.

I don't know what the answer is--what do you think?