Monday, July 8, 2013

"Don't you cry for me..."

In the recent IP thread (see here, here, here and here to get caught up), Joseph and I have generally been bemoaning regulatory capture and trying to make the case that ludicrously broad patents and endlessly extended copyrights are socially costly. We were not, however, arguing for the other extreme, a world of no intellectual property protection where "information wants to be free." We've seen how how things work in a world where copyrights go unenforced:
Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as the "father of American music", was an American songwriter primarily known for his parlour and minstrel music. Foster wrote over 200 songs; among his best known are "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", "Old Black Joe", and "Beautiful Dreamer". Many of his compositions remain popular more than 150 years after he wrote them.
Stephen Foster had become impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. He was reportedly confined to his bed for days by a persistent fever; Foster tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to Bellevue Hospital. In an era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed three days after his admittance, aged 37. 
His worn leather wallet contained a scrap of paper that simply said, "Dear friends and gentle hearts," along with 38 cents in Civil War scrip and three pennies.
(According to a music historian I know, the example of Foster was very much on the minds of the people who created ASCAP fifty years later.)

Just so there's no room for confusion, Joseph and I are arguing for the middle ground for IP protection, such as what we saw with American copyrights from 1909 to 1976 (a period that represented a pretty good run).


  1. Yes, this is a rather important point. It is important that creative types and innovators are compensated. What isn't as clear is what is the level of protection that ensures rewards for the inventor or artist but doesn't lead to endless patent suits or the neglect of older works. It is not an easy area to make sweeping decisions in.

    1. The analogy to marginal tax rates seems pretty strong here. Locating the exact optimum is difficult but it's often easy to see when you've wandering into an extreme.

      1864 was one extreme. 2013 is the other.