Mickey Mouse Politics

by Henry Farrell on November 19, 2004

Duncan Black has it “about right”:http://atrios.blogspot.com/2004/11/self-righteous-versus-scold.html:

bq. The Dems should be going after the techno-lib vote by fighting against the Intellectual Property grab which is currently going on. Give people their porn, their Napster, and their unfettered Tivo. And, yes, I am respectful of genuine intellectual property rights but DMCA, the Mickey Mouse Preservation Act copyright extension and the inevitable progeny of both will soon make it impossible to say or do anything without handing over a license fee.

To which I can only add that the Democrats should be doing this anyway, because it’s the right thing to do. Just because the movie and music industry are ‘our’ plutocrats doesn’t mean that Democratic politicians should be supporting their attempted land grab. One of the few real rays of hope for the modern left is the public domain and Creative Commons movement. The left should be supporting what it’s doing – helping to create a free space for collective and individual endeavour. Handing the strangling cord to entrenched interests probably isn’t good politics; it’s certainly bad policy.



Kevin Baker 11.19.04 at 10:10 pm

“Democrats should be doing this anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.”

Pardon my cynicism, but when was the last time either political party did anything (at least domestically) because it was “the right thing to do”?

They generally only do things to improve their chances at re-election.


Russell Arben Fox 11.19.04 at 10:10 pm

I agree. Pushing to keep open, and hopefully expand, the principle of public domain needn’t be read as a “techno-libertarian” move; it can just as easily (and legitimately) be understood as a populist move to keep the collective power of creating and shaping (and even limiting) various media in the hands of the people, as opposed to the hands of corporations who are committed to a single, unchanging, bottom-line agenda.


Kevin Carson 11.20.04 at 12:20 am

I totally agree.

And “legitimate intellectual property” is an oxymoron. Intellectual property is theft.

Patents on production technology probably have a greater cartelizing effect on the economy than any single other form of government intervention–and that’s saying a lot!


WeSaferThemHealthier 11.20.04 at 1:21 am


Well, you know the standard answer to that. If one’s invention can be freely copied by all, there’s little incentive to spend the R&D money on new production technology ( unless one can coerce all future beneficiaries into contributing to the R&D effort ).

Without intellectual property rights on production technology, there would be little research being done. Better to have new technologies being freely available to everyone 10/20/30 years in the future than have no/very little new production technology being developed.

What do you answer to that?


jonathan 11.20.04 at 1:37 am

I answer that copyright law has always been and should continue to be a balance between the public interest in protecting innovation and the public interest in permitting the free flow of information and technology.

As someone who grew up in a family whose income came from royalties on copyrighted material, I value copyright and IP laws highly; however, I don’t believe that corporations should have the right to profit from their IP in perpetuity, which is the direction in which our lobby-driven system is heading.

I’m particularly appalled at the blacklisting of technology that could (only could) be used for the illegitimate duplication and dissemination of copyrighted material. Laws such as DCMA to me appear to take us down a slippery slope where eventually it will be illegal to own an printing press without registering with the government.

(As an aside, it really bugs me that technology is being required to determine whether I’m participating in fair use. See the whole DeCSS debate [citation omitted] for that whole argument.)


Duane 11.20.04 at 1:42 am

Hear, hear. Speaking of which, a big shout out to Poland for doing the right thing and scuttling the terrible EU patent legislation. I’m a software developer working in Britain, and that law could have been disasterous for the little company I work for.


bad Jim 11.20.04 at 1:53 am

The record companies’ battle against file sharing may be counterproductive, since the consolidation of radio stations means that they no longer promote new music as well as they used to. U2 and Eminem appear to have decided to promote their new releases by getting them onto the peer-to-peer networks. Details here, via a contributor to Eric Alterman.

I would suspect that the widescale pirating of Microsoft software has made it a worldwide standard and done more to increase sales than any of the company’s other marketing efforts.

In other words, a relaxed attitude towards intellectual property rights may actually be good for business.


Jackmormon 11.20.04 at 2:19 am

I offer the following in genuine concern and would like genuine responses.

I’m coming out of the arts, and while I understand that the sciences involve different conceptions of public benefit, the current laws apply to each.

In the arts, I worry about the little guys. Not the McDonalds, the Beatles, the Disneys: it’s true that they’re driving the legislation, and I would like to see their strangleholds be finite.

But I do worry about throwing out:

The middling or behind-the-scenes artist who has managed to put a stake in royalties into the contract. Maybe he or she made a couple of big hits and wants to retire on the endless replays.

The small journal that bet some capital on the young intellectual whose work deserved reprinting all over the place. Doesn’t that journal deserve some recompense (and my understanding is that it’s currently fairly minimal) for its risk?

The rare long-lived artist who wants to make sure that his or her work isn’t being translated by neandrathals or ideologues. Shouldn’t an author be able to control to some degree the use to which his or her text is being made?

I’ve studied some instances of textual transmission in the early 19th-c before effective international copyright laws. It’s exciting, lots of creative appropriations happen, but the fact of the matter is that the original generators of material were still scraping by while dubious translators and copycats were making fortunes.

Don’t get me wrong. I do understand that the current IP law is being manipulated in order to maintain industries based on the creativity of the long-dead. Still, I wonder what form a new IP law would take to protect the intellectual labor of the living.


clew 11.20.04 at 3:18 am

Which authors were only scraping by? I remember that Dickens and Trollope didn’t make the money out of US reprintings they could have, but they weren’t poor.

Personally, I’m OK with copyright lasting the life of a biological human creator; I’m sorry about the small journals, if they outlive the creator (can’t be common) and I hope they make up the difference on decreased cost of distribution; and I think the ‘moral right’ of the original is best balanced against the social right to make scathing reworkings by requiring that it be obvious who wrote what.

Actually, I think the standard for parodies and for bowdlerized versions both should be that they get shipped as diff files with the unaltered original. The original pays what it would w/o the diff, and to the original author, who therefore has the income to write a devastating reversal of the parody.


bad Jim 11.20.04 at 3:58 am

Mozart and Beethoven, for two, only got paid for the original sale of their published work. They made most of their money from performances, I believe, just like the Grateful Dead.

My understanding is that few musicians make much money from royalties even now; most recording contracts benefit the publisher rather than the artist.

I would argue that developing countries might rationally take the same approach to intellectual property rights that the United States did before the twentieth century, which was to ignore those that originated elsewhere.


Henry 11.20.04 at 4:35 am

Jackmormon – I think that you’re mixing together two somewhat different questions (in fairness, other commenters here have done the same). The first is whether there is some case to be made for limited rights to intellectual property. Surely there is – it’s an artificial monopoly, but a socially useful one. The other is whether there is a case for 75 year copyright terms, ridiculous patents on business methods, and US government efforts at WIPO and elsewhere specifically to underminew open source, Creative Commons etc. The latter is, as far as I can see, intellectually indefensible (at least I haven’t come across any defences of it that have even begun to seem reasonable to me). It’s this that I’m talking about.


John Quiggin 11.20.04 at 7:05 am

A noteworthy feature of all this is that the “intellectual” properties for which the corporate media are fighting hardest are Mickey Mouse and (the Disney version of) Winnie the Pooh. If it were feasible I’d be happy to buy them off with eternal monopoly rights over these and similar items in return for a Creative Commons or open source approach to culture and innovation in general.


cm 11.20.04 at 8:04 am

mesaferthemhealthier: This is largely (not entirely) a canard. I’m not sure whether you refer to copyright or patents.

I contend that a large number (not sure whether the majority) of patents are entered by corporations with the intent not of protecting an invention, but blocking competition or amassing material for bringing & defending frivolous lawsuits, and by individuals who think they are entitled to retiring comfortably after having had a cool idea, and those who make the effort of creating an actual product have to pay their retirement income.

The contribution of the initial idea is generally overrated. It is an enabling factor, but without the follow-up sweat work it is of limited value.

Also compare the age-old chest pounding matches between sales and R&D/manufacturing — “you would be out of a job if we wouldn’t bring in the deals” vs. “you wouldn’t have anything to sell if we wouldn’t create the product”.


abb1 11.20.04 at 3:34 pm

Could you link an article with description/explanation of the “US government efforts at WIPO and elsewhere specifically to undermine open source…”.



pontechango 11.20.04 at 8:50 pm

I’m in 100% agreement. I also think they should take a “harm reduction” approach to the drug war. Those two policies would gain some cross-over votes from the Libertarian Party and some of the millions of apathetic independents. It would also remove some of my deepest reservations about the Democratic party.


Jackmormon 11.20.04 at 9:27 pm

Thanks for the disentangling. I guess a moderate techno-libertation position could be politically advantageous. The Sonny Bono law extending copyright, for example, could do with some overturning. Patents on organisms and genomes could also become a wedge issue–can’t you just imagine how tangled the arguments about the value of “life” would get!?

De Quincey. Baudelaire. Mega-platnum bestsellers Scott, Byron, and Balzac, until the end of their lives. Godwin. That’s off the top of my head, and just the really really famous writers whose names ring bells or even got named.

As for your examples, Trollope and Dickens both worked like dogs. Trollope himself was a weird bird; he worked at the post office during the day and wrote really really quickly and on a schedule at night; he didn’t even quit his dayjob when his innumerable novels were selling like hotcakes.

Dickens made a lot of his money on the lecture circuit (not unlike the Beethoven and Mozart examples above, he read his own stuff). Later in his life he controlled the means of his publication (he ran a successful journal).


clew 11.21.04 at 1:32 am

Well, Trollope’s day job was really comfortable by the time he was a novelist; he’d done all the ground-pounding in his youth, and had been kicked upstairs to (IIRC) about four hours’ work a day in a nice office with frequent excellent lunches. It was probably worth it for his novels just for the insiders’ view of government.

More importantly for all the readers since, it’s better that Trollope and Dickens and Scott kept writing. Had they been able to retire into unproductive or unedited wealth, we’d have fewer novels or worse ones.


vernaculo 11.21.04 at 5:46 am

All you need to know about this is that Disney is fighting to control the use of what they did to A.A. Milne’s work.
Nothing more damning could be said by anyone, nothing more condemning needs to be proved.


Phil Hunt 11.22.04 at 12:51 am

One of the few real rays of hope for the modern left is the public domain and Creative Commons movement. The left should be supporting what it’s doing

Well said.


Henry 11.22.04 at 10:59 pm

Hi abb1

Check out”http://www.lessig.org/blog/archives/001436.shtml”:http://www.lessig.org/blog/archives/001436.shtml.


abb1 11.23.04 at 7:52 pm

Thanks, Henry. Amazing, isn’t it.

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