Is The Looming Internet Filter Justified? Not Yet

Is intellectual property “property”? Kinda. Sorta. Not really.

That question might seem a bit abstract, on par with how-many-angels-can-fit-on-the-head-of-a-pin. But it matters. Because how Parliament sees the fundamental nature of one form of intellectual property – copyright – is almost certainly going to determine whether we are subjected to a new internet filter.

A bill now before Parliament, the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015, would give courts power to require internet providers block access to foreign websites whose dominant purpose is to facilitate copyright infringement.

In practice this means that Time Warner, which owns the copyright to Game of Thrones, could go to a judge and demand Telstra or iiNet block access to the Pirate Bay.

There are lots of problems with this bill. Its language is absurdly vague and broad. What counts as “facilitating” copyright infringement? Maybe it would block sites that offer virtual private networks, perhaps – those VPNs that Malcolm Turnbull has been encouraging us all to use.

But these are legislative technicalities. More importantly, blocking websites is censorship. The bill is an internet filter, no matter how stridently the Abbott Government rejects the comparison.

Supporters of the bill argue that technicalities and censorship aside, the real issue is that property is being stolen, and the Government – whose job it is to protect property – needs to act. After all, private property is a human right as much as free speech is. (Check out Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

It is true that intellectual property shares some of the characteristics of property. Like tangible property, intellectual property can be owned. It can be traded. So it’s property in those senses.

But, unlike tangible property, the use of intellectual property is not exclusive. When one person listens to a song or watches a movie they do not prevent others from doing so. It can’t be “stolen” in anything but a metaphorical sense.

This is why the law hasn’t treated intellectual property like real property. We don’t have a moral right to perpetual ownership and unimpeded exclusive control over the songs we write or movies we produce. For instance, copyright lasts 70 years after the death of the creator. Real property has no such time limits.

The scholar Tom W. Bell says that intellectual property would be better called intellectual privilege. This privilege is conferred for a specific purpose – to provide an incentive for the creation of new works. The theory is if we don’t confer that privilege people will supply less creative work than is socially desirable.

But that privilege has costs. For instance, copyright also stops us from using our other, real property as we see fit – we can’t use our computers, printing presses or internet connections as we would like. And we can’t build on the cultural capital created by others.

Thus the Howard government’s Ergas Report into Intellectual Property and Competition Policyargued that “over-compensating rights owners is as harmful, and perhaps even more harmful, than under-compensating them”.

So will the proposed Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 inspire the creation of new works? Even if placing a block on the Pirate Bay successfully stops internet piracy (please bear with me on this fantastic hypothetical) will artists go out and create more art as a result? And would enough new work be created to compensate for the restriction on free speech?

Many economists theorise about an “optimal” level of copyright protection – a sweet spot of enforcement and rules where the benefits of copyright are maximised and the costs are minimised.

Yet it is very hard to figure out where that sweet spot is. Even impossible. And the political system isn’t looking for the optimal policy – it’s looking for the most politically palatable policy, the one where the benefits are being maximised for politicians, not consumers.

In the United States, every time Mickey Mouse threatens to fall into the public domain the Walt Disney Company lobbies hard to extend copyright term limits. Nobody really thinks that maintaining Disney’s exclusive rights over Mickey for another decade or two will lead to more creative works being produced. But these are decisions made by politicians, not blackboard economists, so the extensions get granted.

The Australian Parliament has been considering copyright enforcement changes since last year. We’ve heard a lot of pontificating about “theft” and digital access and global release dates.

But the only policy question is whether website blocking would inspire the creation of enough new content to make up for the fact that the Government is censoring the internet.

And, so far, nobody has shown that would be the case.