Free-riding, cooperation, and ‘peaceful revolutions’ in copyright (post-print draft)

I have a new article in press with the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology. I’m interested in comments on the post-print draft. Abstract:

Modern copyright law is based on the inescapable assumption that users, given the choice, will free-ride rather than pay for access. In fact, many consumers of cultural works – music, books, films, games, and other works – fundamentally want to support their production. It turns out that humans are motivated to support cultural production not only by extrinsic incentives, but also by social norms of fairness and reciprocity. This article explains how producers across the creative industries have used this insight to develop increasingly sophisticated business models that rely on voluntary payments (including pay-what-you-want schemes) to fund their costs of production.


The recognition that users are not always free-riders suggests that current policy approaches to copyright are fundamentally flawed. Because social norms are so important in consumer motivations, the perceived unfairness of the current copyright system undermines the willingness of people to pay for access to cultural goods. While recent copyright reform debate has focused on creating stronger deterrence through enforcement, increasing the perceived fairness and legitimacy of copyright law is likely to be much more effective.

The fact that users will sometimes willingly support cultural production also challenges the economic raison d’être of copyright law. This article demonstrates how ‘peaceful revolutions’ are flipping conventional copyright models and encouraging free-riding through combining incentives and prosocial norms. Because they provide a means to support production without limiting the dissemination of knowledge and culture, there is good reason to believe that these commons-based systems of cultural production can be more efficient, more fair, and more conducive to human flourishing than conventional copyright systems. This article explains what we know about free-riding so far and what work remains to be done to understand the viability and importance of cooperative systems in funding cultural production.