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The economics of copying

A copy machine printing money.
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When an item is copied, the original tends to lose value — except when it doesn't.

Driving the news: The biggest fight in the music industry this week is undoubtedly Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun, the manager of longtime Swift foe Kanye West. Braun bought Big Machine, Swift's former record label, for what is said to be over $300 million, much to the megastar's displeasure.

  • In the midst of the resulting pop-culture chaos, Alex Boubia, a Bulgarian Taylor Swift fan, put up a change.org petition asking Swift to re-record her first 6 albums; he has almost 200,000 signatures.
  • It's not clear whether Swift is contractually allowed to re-record her early albums, or whether she would want to do so even if she could. But the economic intuition is clear: Given the choice, Swift's fans would prefer to stream new recordings where she owned the masters. By doing so, they would channel the Taylor Swift income stream away from Big Machine and toward Swift herself, enriching Swift at the expense of Braun.
  • Swift might be able to buy her master recordings from Braun, the outcome that would likely make her fans happiest. The negotiations would take place in the context of two implicit threats. First, she might be able to re-record the old albums; second, she could refuse permission to allow music on those albums to be used in movies, commercials and other lucrative contexts.

Be smart: If the masters have more value in Swift's hands than in Braun's, that's a more likely outcome than any attempt to devalue them.

Between the lines: Art has always had a strange relationship with copying. The most reproduced artworks tend to also be the most valuable — think Monet's water lilies or Warhol's Marilyns. If the artist makes many such works, that's often good for the per-piece value, even as mechanical reproductions are generally worthless. Broadly, the objects (which can be bought and sold) are worth much more than the copyright (which generally remains with the artist).

  • Copying art objects is generally taboo in the art world, but it tends not to have a negative effect on the value of the originals. Photographer William Eggleston reprinted some of his early photographs in 2012, without any deleterious effect on value of the earlier, smaller versions. And when Wade Guyton started making dozens of copies of one of his paintings going up for auction at Christie's, the original sold for $3.5 million, above its high estimate.
  • Even counterfeit goods don't always harm the owners of intellectual property. Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana is famous for refusing to prosecute counterfeiters, because they think counterfeits ultimately increase the desirability of the brand.

Generic drugs are meant to be indistinguishable from the originals, bringing prices down. A new book by Katherine Eban, however, argues that there are important differences between generics and originals; some hospitals actively avoid prescribing certain generics.

The bottom line: One glance at the price of an iPhone should be enough to prove that copies don't always mean that prices come down. In fact, they often serve to ratify the value of the original.

Go deeper: Almost everything in the digital economy is a copy. MIT professors Seth Benzell and Erik Brynjolfsson examine some of the implications in their paper "Digital Abundance and Scarce Genius: Implications for Wages, Interest Rates, and Growth."

Editor's note: This post was corrected to reflect that the estimated price Braun bought Big Machine for is over $300 million (not a definitive $300 million).