Sharing is not a market failure

For the second consecutive year, European commissioner Nellie Kroes delivered a speech in the Forum d’Avignon (the international meeting of culture, economy and the media) that breaks with the dominant copyright fundamentalism in this forum. Nelllie Kroes’ speech stresses even more clearly than last year some essential points :

  • the failure of enforcing exclusive rights on copying (copyright stricto sensu) against individuals in the digital world,
  • recalling that our goal is to reward and finance authors and creators, and that the present day-copyright system pitifully fails to do so for the very vast majority of them,
  • her conviction that we need flexibility in the system of rewards and not the straight-jacket of a unique and unadapted system,
  • the invitation to explore new models without prejudice nor taboos.

The speech even includes sentences that will read as a personal message for cultural policy reformers:

So new ideas which could benefit artists are killed before they can show their merit, dead on arrival. This needs to change.
[…]
So that’s my answer: it’s not all about copyright. It is certainly important, but we need to stop obsessing about that. The life of an artist is tough: the crisis has made it tougher. Let’s get back to basics, and deliver a system of recognition and reward that puts artists and creators at its heart.

However, Nellie Kroes’ analysis fails to take an essentiel step: it remains entirely within an economicist approach. The public is present only as consumers, who are assumed to use file sharing only because legal offers, constrained by laws and regulations, would not evolve with enough flexibility. Sharing would be only a market failure and not a fundamental dimension of culture. The distribution of works to other individuals, sharing them without aim of profit, this wonderful capability with which digital technology endows us would just be an anomaly and not the core cultural promise of the digital age. Without taking the essential step of recognizing the right to non-market sharing, many of the measures proposed by Nellie Kroes (lowering the VAT on digital cultural products to align it with physical products) or many of her visions (let’s do our own European Netflix, iTunes or centralized hosting services) would deliver exactly the contrary of what she tells us is her aim. Instead of a universe where the public could demonstrate its recognition and support to artists by both non-market sharing and purchasing commercial goods and services, an economicist vision of culture promotes a public of consumers facing monopolist distributors. Encore un effort, dear Nellie Kroes, for recognizing that non-market file sharing is a legitimate and culturally useful activity.

This post is also available in: French

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