On copyright and on spectrum

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Internet keeps bringing this pair of issues to our attention, and they seem to go together more and more often.

Sinclair Broadcasting wants to use the spectrum (our spectrum) to broadcast political messages through its company-owned stations. Once again, regardless of our politics, I think we need to ask the following question:

“Whose spectrum is it?”

Computers have completely reinvented what we can do with a slice of spectrum. In the bandwidth your local CBS-affiliate uses, we could easily broadcast dozens of channels of digital information. We could create free internet access around the country. But it sits there, stuck, because the FCC licensed that spectrum years ago. Just because someone has built a business around it, should it stay that way?

What if we decided to use the spectrum in ways that benefitted everyone, not just media companies? For example, why not require that anyone broadcasting on the public airwaves devote one hour every night in prime time to public interest programming and commercials? With that much inventory, the cost of running for President could be driven close to zero (all your media buys would be free).

Which brings us around again to copyright, which always manages to get me in trouble. Whose copyright is it? What’s it for?

Why not have patents last 100 years? They don’t because we know that allowing a patent to go into the public domain makes it far easier for society to benefit… other inventions can be based on that first idea.

So why not make copyrights last for 5 years, not 100? A five year copyright would not dramatically decrease the incentive to make a movie or write a book, would it? Looking at my book sales, I can tell you that the vast majority of sales come in the first five years. Sure, JD Salinger would get hurt in the long run, but would that have kept him from writing Catcher in the Rye?

The purpose of copyright is simple: to encourage people to make stuff worth looking at and using. Not to protect the people who already wrote something. And CERTAINLY not to protect the companies that market movies or publish books.

Both cases are the same: our spectrum and our access to ideas are being held hostage by big companies who are dependent on the status quo. The ability of our culture to quickly evolve ideas and then to broadcast them to ever larger audiences is a fundamental building block of our success. Why do 98% of us sit around while big companies with no interest in us legislate against our interests?