I once heard on the radio that Swiss students went on strike because they wanted more scholarships and less student loans. Who indeed would pay interest charges when you can find legal ways to avoid them ? A scholarship is nothing but a fully subsidized loan. In the finance jargon, what Swiss students have been asking for is a zero cost funding topped by the right not to repay the principal of the loan (right which in this particular case is always exercised.) Most of us would certainly love to receive free of charge money to fund the assets we want to invest in.
Even though I have a lot of sympathy for student activism, what strikes me in this episode is that (far too) many people, including students, seem to think that we live in an "All or Nothing" society. Either you get what you want in full (zero cost funding for that matter) or you get nothing (namely a loan with an interest rate).
But, wait a minute, where has creativity gone? Human brain is admirable precisely because it has always been able to fill the void between all and nothing. Let's take the example of the student loan again. The interest rate does not have to be either zero or strictly positive. What if students could get a loan where the forthcoming installments would be indexed on some future earnings measurement ? When students' future earnings would go down, the loan installments would go down too : Right when they badly need it. Take the worst case scenario where students do not find any job. In that painful case, the loan reimbursements would be suspended as long as the students do not find a job. When students' future earnings would go north, installments would go north too : Right when they can afford it.
I know there are many contractual details to be fixed to make this type of structured loan fly. Sadly enough and because of the 2008 credit crisis the creative folks at My Rich Uncle do no offer such a scheme and variations around it anymore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MyRichUncle.) Their schemes were quite innovative and available online ! But the spirit is still there: Use your brain to fill the void between all or nothing !
Recently, I visited vintage bookstores in Brussels. I bought an old business textbook dated 1900. It is titled "Textbook of Commercial Sciences" and has been written by Professor Merten of the University of Ghent. Two things caught my eyes. The first one is related to the way the reader can authenticate whether he is reading a true copy or a fake one. Simple, each true copy had to carry the author's signature. The absence of the signature signaled that the copy was a fake. Of course, it begs the question of how one knows the authors' true signature in the first place and how one can be sure it has not been counterfeited. In any case, it is fun to see that the compulsory signature indicates that book piracy was already an issue in this pre-Internet age !
The second thing has to do with copyright and copyright enforcement. We all know the traditional formula. It usually says "All Rights Reserved". Well, here the text is rather different. It is a lot more personal and a lot more detailed. Indeed, the publisher writes unequivocally:
"All rights are reserved in accordance with the law. I am willing to sue anyone who would, in violation of my copyright, reproduce any theory or proof from this book, either from past editions or from the current one." , The Publisher.
One cannot be more specific! I truly find it more « credible » than the usual "All Rights Reserved". Here again though, what strikes me is that we are still stuck in an "all or nothing" situation. Either the book is copyrighted (all) or the book is public domain (nothing: No Rights Reserved).
This is sad! What about having something softer that would say "Some Rights Reserved"? These rights would be spelled accordingly. Some uses would then be allowed without violating the publisher's rights. For instance, photocopies of books should be allowed in jailhouses or hospitals.I know that Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig and the folks at Creative Commons have been fighting big time for this. Creative Common licenses do allow to change the copyright terms from the default of "all rights reserved" to "some rights reserved." But, the simple fact that they still have to fight for it is again strong evidence of the pervasiveness of the "All or Nothing" society.
The "All or Nothing" society is a real plague. The last thing we should do is surrender to it, an insult to our individual and collective intelligence, truly. After all, copyright is a social creation that we can and must adapt along the way. Some argue that copyright should be totally abolished. I do not think this is a good solution. A full copyright world is indeed not right. However, a no copyright world is wrong too. And, what is true of copyright is also true of property rights. It is an obvious fact that ideas can flow worldwide at click-speed. This does not necessarily mean that all copyright and property right dams should be destroyed. These dams do carry opportunities that can make them legitimate. What if, for instance, some of the royalties they trigger were allocated to public funds supporting innovative projects? What if we reconsidered what I call the Faustian swap (free service in exchange of all your data)? The swap is truly odious: the more free data are crunched, the more we are crushed. The more data are given away, the wealthier, more powerful and more uncontrollable robber robot lords are. Free is not fun at all!
So, next time you feel in an "All" or "Nothing" situation, please observe it carefully, there might be room for a new business.
Your next business! (Or, your next piracy?)