A team of economists in Forbes says Congress’ extension of copyright is “baloney”:
- You could call it the Disney shareholder protection act. In 1998 Congress added 20 years to existing copyrights, making corporate copyrights good for 95 years and those owned by individuals good for 70 years past the author’s death. Practical effect: Disney’s control of its earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons extends to 2023 and of Winnie the Pooh characters to 2026. Now before the U.S. Supreme Court: whether this stretch-out was such a giveaway to Hollywood that it violated constitutional standards.
One of the law’s nonadmirers, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, makes a point about copyright law by telling how Walt Disney built his empire. The budding mogul made a movie about a mouse in 1928 called Steamboat Willie. He based it on a Buster Keaton feature film, Steamboat Bill, Jr. He had a hit in Snow White; the studio stole the plot line from the Brothers Grimm. His studio later made The Hunchback of Notre Dame by cribbing from Victor Hugo. The new law, warns Lessig, would crimp entrepreneurs and innovators who want to build on old literary themes the way Walt did. “It’s insane,” he told a software convention recently.
Lessig made that point before the Supreme Court this month in a copyright case that is pitting big media companies like Disney against tiny Web sites and publishers. Lessig represents Eric Eldred, who runs a Web site that distributes classic literary works free of charge. If Eldred wins, thousands of books, films
and musical scores that would have remained under private control for decades will become part of the public domain.
To make the case that the 1998 law should be overturned, Lessig’s camp scared up the support of 17 prominent economists, including Milton Friedman and four other Nobel Prize winners. The economists make the undeniable point that extending monopoly protection to works already created provides no incentive to create new ones. Dr. Seuss, for example, is not going to write new Cat in the Hat tales simply because the copyright on the old stories has been extended. After all, he has been dead for 11 years. “This law gives further protection to people who have already invented something,” says Timothy F. Bresnahan, a Stanford economist who signed on to the brief. “That gets it exactly backward.”
What about new work by new artists? The economists say the new law doesn’t provide much incentive in this case, either. Bear in mind that most copyright works lose their value quickly; Disney cartoons based on A.A. Milne’s Pooh characters, with the potential for a billion dollars in toy volume over a lifetime, are quite the exception. Now factor in the time value of money. Even if someone putting pen to paper today is motivated by the prospect of keeping his great-grandchildren in polo ponies, royalties kicking in a century hence aren’t worth much today, on a discounted present-value basis. Add it all up, the economists calculated, and the extra 20 years add only 0.3% to the value of a new copyright….