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Free Bloomsday!

February 26th, 2004

If you want to see what’s wrong with copyright and the concept of intellectual property, it’s hard to go past the obstacles being put up by James Joyce’s grandson Stephen to recitations of Ulysses on the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday (June 16 2004) in Dublin. Thanks to the extension of copyright to 70 years beyond the author’s death by the European Union in 1995, Joyce has absolute control over his grandfather’s work until 2011. It’s hard to imagine any moral sense in which Ulysses belongs more to an obstreporous descendant of the author than to the city that inspired it.

The issues are completely obscured by the use of the term ‘intellectual property’ which makes it appear that ideas belong to an owner in the same way that a car or a block of land does. This term, enshrined in mountains of legislation and treaties deserves about the same amount of respect as the contrary slogan ‘information wants to be free’ (if anything less so, since the latter is a half-truth, while the former is a falsehood)

In economic terms, the idea of copyright is to balance the interests of the public in the free dissemination of what is, once it is produced, a naturally public good (and therefore ‘wants to be free’), with the need to encourage authors to create works in the first place. The example of Ulysses shows how far we have got the balance wrong. Does anyone seriously believe that Joyce was motivated, even in the slightest, by the prospect of enriching a grandchild who hadn’t even been born at the time. (Of course, he would have needed extraordinary foresight to predict the successive extensions of copyright that would make this possible).

Even taking a forward-looking view, what kind of benefit do authors today get from the sale of copyrights extending up to a century after their death. For a publisher evaluating commercial investments of this kind, a 10 per cent discount rate would be on the low side, but this would be enough to ensure that royalties received 70 years in the future would be discounted by a factor of 1000. From the social viewpoint, on the other hand, the future costs of restricted access to copyrighted works should be discounted at a much lower rate, perhaps 3 per cent, which would imply that costs incurred 70 years in the future should be discounted by a factor of around 8.

All of this is particularly relevant to Australians, as we are one of the few countries still enjoying the benefits of the ‘life + 50 years’ rule, and have therefore been of particular value to public-domain exercises like the Gutenberg project.. Our government has just signed a so-called Free Trade Agreement with the United States. It does little or nothing to free trade, but a lot to protect monopoly rights, including an extension of copyright to life +70 years. Fortunately this needs legislation, which may be rejected. Given that the Irish have signed away their public domain rights, and we are still clinging to ours, the Bloomsday centenary would be an appropriate occasion for celebrating them.

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  1. Homer Paxton
    February 27th, 2004 at 13:38 | #1

    let’s be honest who actually got past the first page in this highly overrated book!

  2. February 27th, 2004 at 16:37 | #2

    and you call yourself Homer! :)

  3. Stephen Hill
    February 27th, 2004 at 20:30 | #3

    “Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man” was his great work IMHO. But there are still many reasons to visit Bloomusulem.

  4. February 27th, 2004 at 23:51 | #4

    The famous Homer was certainly blind and would probably have been functionally illiterate even if he had been sighted, in that era (lack of literacy was why they had a niche for bards).

  5. February 28th, 2004 at 10:05 | #5

    A teriffic example, John, and exactly the point. IP ‘rights’ are created by law to serve a social need. They are not a duty owed by the society to any author or inventor — although this is how the debate is now couched. The extension of the monopoly to meet a trade objective (harmonized copyright standards) without the extension of the benefits to the society (greater access to creative or inventive works) would be a distortion. I haven’t yet made up my mind whether the harmonization of our copyright terms around the ‘Disney’ copyright standard is beneficial or not: but I am inclined to share your view.

    Best wishes,

    Peter

  6. Joe
    February 26th, 2004 at 20:59 | #6

    Laurence Lessig has an interesting post on this at http://www.lessig.org/blog/archives/001740.shtml#001740 .
    His idea of a Public Domain Enhancement Act – “This statute would require American copyright owners to pay a very low fee (for example, $1) fifty years after a copyrighted work was published. If the owner pays the fee, the copyright will continue for whatever duration Congress sets. But if the copyright is not worth even $1 to the owner, then we believe the work should pass into the public domain.” seems a very sensible solution to one of the problems of copyright.

  7. February 26th, 2004 at 23:56 | #7

    “It’s hard to imagine any moral sense in which Ulysses belongs more to an obstreporous descendant of the author than to the city that inspired it.”

    Easy – it’s hard to imagine any sense whatsoever in which a fiction (such as that corporate person, a city) itself has a moral right to anything. If it has, then of course it flows through to whoever inherited the moral rights from its foundation (as opposed to mere possession and occupation). That would be the Vikings.

    I’m not so much arguing the Viking part seriously as showing that JQ is starting with an unexamined thing, the city, and deciding in its favour simply from seeing how tenuous the claims of the other party are.

  8. February 27th, 2004 at 08:21 | #8

    I agree with Joe, Lessig does have some interesting ideas when it comes to intellectual property. He’s a smart guy that’s alos willing to put his thoughts into action with the Creative Commons licence (which Prof Q is already aware of).

    I first found out about Lessig via Slashdot and his talk at the Open Source conference 2002. The Flash version of his presentation [1] there is a wonderful mix of ideas, history and showmanship.

    [1] http://randomfoo.net/oscon/2002/lessig/

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