SINGAPORE - One of the themes of last month's IP Week@SG was how Singapore is aspiring to be a hub for managing intellectual property (IP) such as copyrights, patents and design rights.
The idea behind it is that strong protection of intellectual property rights will help to foster creativity among authors, inventors and designers by giving them a financial incentive. The result, it is said, will be new inventions that benefit society.
But do IP rights really foster creativity?
Take copyrights. If they encourage people to create, why should dead authors have them? The Copyright Act confers copyright on an author in Singapore for life - and 70 years after death.
Perhaps the authorities believe that longer copyright protection periods add to the incentive. Yet decades of research show that financial rewards don't really encourage creativity.
The emergence of the open source movement supports this finding. Numerous computer programmers across the world work together to write and debug open source software without any expectation that they will hold copyright or be paid for their efforts. Instead, most appear to participate because of an innate drive to do good for society.
Perhaps some hope to win their peers' approval, enhancing their employability. But this cannot explain the emergence of online projects, such as Wikipedia, fan videos and fan fiction, that aren't likely to lead to money or jobs.
Moreover, there have always been starving poets, artists and writers. In other words, creative types don't seem to fit the economic model of humans as rational profit maximisers.
There are now 50 years of studies in psychology showing that external inducements or extrinsic rewards, especially money, can help motivate people when it comes to dull, routine tasks. But such things don't motivate and may, in fact, reduce creativity.
A 2002 study of open source software writers found that they valued the "learning and enjoyment, a sense of ownership, control over the work product, and a sense of membership in a community". Apart from these motivators of creativity, a sense that they were giving back to society was also reported.
By contrast, rewarding people based on performance has been shown to impair an individual's sense of control and ownership of a task. This tends to encourage people to think about a task as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
Maybe the drivers of creativity are more "spiritual" than economic. This is what Roberta Kwall argued in her 2009 book, The Soul Of Creativity. Consider the Shakers, a religious group that fled persecution in England in the late 18th century to set up communes in the United States. They invented the metal pen nib, the flat broom, a mechanical washing machine, clothes pegs and others. Creating labour-saving devices freed them up for religious activities, so to create was a type of religious expression.
Religion apart, many struggling artists feel they have a personal duty to transform the world. This is an innate drive that has nothing to do with money. Their motive may also be regarded as spiritual.
So the idea that the enforcement of copyright is somehow linked with creativity is difficult to maintain.
In fact, copyrights were originally put in place not to promote creativity but to promote the interests of a business monopoly and protect the political interests of the English ruling class.
In 1476, William Caxton brought the printing press from Europe to London, thus ending the copying of books by hand. In London, a new business sector of printing emerged and a guild called The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers was formed. Its membership included printers, booksellers, bookbinders and illustrators - but not authors. Once a member had registered a particular title with the guild, he had exclusive "copyright" in perpetuity to print copies and sell them.
Conferred by the Crown, the guild's charter gave its members a national monopoly. According to Lyman Ray Patterson's Copyright In Historical Perspective (1968), this was because the guild formed a strategic partnership with the Crown, which was concerned about the possible circulation of works that might promote political and religious unrest.
Only guild members could make copies - "copyrights" - and sell them in all of England. In return for this monopoly, the guild made sure that "undesirable" books were never published.
Copyrights remained exclusive to the guild for well over two centuries. Only in 1710, by the Statute of Anne, were authors finally accorded copyrights as well.
But since the Stationers just had to pay authors to hand over their copyrights in return for getting their works published, in practice, copyrights still remained with members of the guild.
Some argue that, when the US adopted its first federal Copyright Act in 1790, copied almost verbatim from the Statute of Anne, Congress believed that it was IP monopolies that made business flourish in England.
In the home country, the economy was expanding during what was then the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Adopting this copyright law, Congress hoped, would help the new nation called the US to industrialise quickly.
In common law jurisdictions such as England, Singapore and other former colonies, the idea that copyright was linked to creativity was more of an afterthought. Copyright recognition supposedly encouraged people to produce things for the good of society by giving them a financial incentive to do so. But until late in the 19th century in England when public schooling began, copyrighted books were not accessible to the illiterate masses anyway.
In reality then, copyright is a holdover from a history that had less to do with a coherent set of ideas about IP and more to do with business. It was always true - and still is to this day - that publishers make the bulk of the profits from books, not the authors themselves.
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