Over the holidays I thought a bit about the copyright conundrum. Is copyright a vital source of creativity, or more of a hindrance? Most of us assume that we need strong laws to prevent copying of certain forms of expression, including books, movies and computer programs. We generally take it as given that unless unpermitted copying is quashed, creators would have no incentive to create, and society would lose the benefit of their creative work. We've erected a powerful system of copyright laws, with broad scope, lengthy terms, and draconian penalties, based on these basic assumptions.
As millions of people already know (though it was news to me), the Nigerian film industry is a vibrant, transformative entertainment phenomenon, and it calls into question these assumptions. Recently the Economist ran a piece about how Nollywood filmmakers are hugely productive and influential all across Africa. Nollywood cranks out 50 full length features a week, which are sold on DVD's for about $1. In a cab ride to the airport, my cab driver, from Gambia, was delighted when I asked him about Nigerian movies, and told me that his family and friends love them and watch them over and over.
The Economist noted that copyright violations are endemic in Nigeria. New films are quickly copied illegally and distributed all over the continent. Film makers have approximately a two-week period (which they call the mating season ) to reap profits on a given movie before copiers deprive them of further opportunities for profit. So film makers make their money, and then quickly churn out another movie to make more money. In other words, the copyright system is completely ineffective in protecting the films, but the result is that the film makers make movies at a feverish pace.
So at least in Nigeria, a very weak system of copyright protection has not prevented the blossoming of a highly productive film industry. If anything, the lack of copyright enforcement seems to have contributed to an amazingly high level of production. It makes me wonder: could a less sweeping and punitive copyright system lead to a higher level of creativity in other countries?