Lack Of Food Copyright Helps Restaurant Innovation Thrive
We’ve discussed over and over again how a lack of copyright protection in the fashion industry helps that industry thrive , because it helps disseminate fashion trends faster, helps better segment markets and (most importantly) gives designers more reasons to keep working on the next thing to stay ahead of the competition. It’s a great example of a creative industry that is highly competitive and highly innovative without copyright. Other industries where we’ve seen similar things include the magic industry and stand up comedy. At times, we’ve also mentioned the restaurant business, but haven’t looked at it in any great detail.
Reader Ephraim points us to a recent post at the Freakonomics blog that highlights how the restaurant business absolutely thrives creatively, despite a lack of copyright protection. The main example: the rise of Korean taco trucks in LA. As you may or may not know (and trust me, you’re better off if you are familiar with this trend), a few years back, some enterprising folks set up a Korean taco truck in LA called Kogi. It quickly became a huge sensation, in part because the food is awesome and in part through smart marketing, including being one of the first food establishments to actively embrace Twitter.
But what happened next is quite interesting. Throughout LA (and now around the country) there’s been an explosion of Korean taco trucks. And, it’s not just limited to trucks. As the article notes, the large chain Baja Fresh is now offering Korean tacos as well. Believers in strong copyright have trouble explaining why this happens. According to them, without copyright as an “incentive to create” people won’t innovate because they can’t be rewarded, but that’s not what’s happening at all:
As readers of our past posts know, the conventional wisdom says that in a system like this no one should innovate. Copyright’s raison d’etre is to promote creativity by protecting creators from pirates. But in the food world, pirates are everywhere. By this logic, we ought to be consigned to uninspired and traditional food choices. In short, the Korean taco should not exist.
But the real world does not follow this logic. In fact, we live in a golden age of cuisine. Thousands of new dishes are created every year in the nation’s restaurants. The quality of American cuisine is very high. The so-called molecular gastronomy movement has innovated in myriad (and often bizarre) ways that have filtered down to more modest restaurants all over the world. Television shows such as Top Chef and Iron Chef challenge contestants to mix and match improbable combinations of ingredients with little warning or time. Our contemporary food culture, in short, not only offers creativity; it increasingly worships creativity–and many of us worship it right back.
So why isn’t the “theory” matching up with reality? The author’s come up with a few theories, but it seems to me that the biggest reason is the same one why the arguments that copyright is needed to get people paid is so wrong: they’re not selling copyright. They’re selling a product. And you can still sell your product whether or not someone can copy you. In fact, if someone can copy you, you have incentives to keep innovating and adding extra value that the buyer can only get from you — such as prestige or ambiance or experience.
The authors also point out another reason (similar to the one we’ve noted about comedians), which is that there are social norms involved as well, focused on reputation. If you’re seen as just copying the works of others, you are looked down upon, and reputation is quite important in these fields. And, of course, reputation and social norms function just fine without copyright.
The authors of the blog post conclude with a dead-on assessment:
The key point is that culinary creativity is flourishing, and it doesn’t depend on copyright. Like fashion, food challenges our preconceptions about the economics of innovation–and perhaps should challenge our legal rules as well.
Pretty much everywhere we look, when we find industries or fields where copyright doesn’t exist or isn’t relied upon, we see the same thing: much higher levels of competition, more and faster innovation and an overall thriving industry. This is the kind of actual evidence that never seems to be discussed in debates over strengthening copyright laws, but should be. It also explains the supposedly “counterintuitive” research that has shown as there has been less respect for copyright in movies, music and books… the rate of production for each of those has increased as well (again, contrary to what copyright system defenders will tell you).
At what point can we put the “without copyright no one would create new content” statement into the mythbin of history?