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Business Costs & Regulation

Should Creative Property Be Free Online?

Creative people should get paid for their talent in a variety of ways, especially by consumers of their work.

Q: My twentysomething son admires the “hack-tivist” computer geeks who break into proprietary databases, "liberate" copyrighted content (scholarly articles, music, videos and the like, which the databases sell for small fees), and send it out to the world for free. He seems to think that all intellectual property should be free, and copyrights and patents stifle creativity. What do you think?

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As you might imagine, I think these hackers, idealistic though they sometimes sound, are misguided lawbreakers. I'm a journalist, and I believe that my fellow writers and other creative people, such as composers, scholars, artists, inventors and performers, should get paid for their talent in a variety of ways, especially by the consumers of their work.

To me, copyrights and royalties don't stifle artistic creativity, but stimulate and reward it. There is a valid debate, however, over whether in the high-tech world, too many overly broad patents are being granted today, stunting innovation and exacerbating litigation; I’ll save that dilemma for another column.

I'm a publisher as well as a journalist, so I believe that selling content to users for a fee is both an owner's right and a good way for society to lessen the risk of advertiser influence on content. I favor user charges (in varying, modest amounts) for all content delivered online, whether in the form of subscriptions, books on Kindles and Nooks, iTunes for $1, photographs, or single newspaper or magazine articles.

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The everything-free advocates think that user fees, besides being antidemocratic, are unnecessary because Web sites can generate enough revenue from advertising—selling access to visitors’ eyeballs—to support the site and pay some kind of royalty to originators of the content. That might be the case on some high-traffic sites, but most Web sites aren't earning enough advertising revenue to pay writers what they used to earn in the pre-Internet days. And many other creative workers are suffering from massive revenue losses from pirated movies and music. It's both an ethical and financial issue.

Have a money-and-ethics question you’d like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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