When Paul Krugman stated in his NY Times op-ed column back in February that, in his opinion, in ten years people will regard the Enron induced confidence crisis in American capitalism as a much bigger problem than September 11, 2001 and the ensuing war on terror, the public outrage was immediate. I am not sure Krugman is right with his statement – we’ll have to wait for future generations of historians to rank the events – but he’s making an crucial point. Important things are going on in this world and most people, including those professionally involved with selling opinion, the media, somehow don’t get it.
What I am referring to is the war about who is allowed to benefit from a copyright on Mickey Mouse for how long after its creation. In short, the war about intellectual property rights, the fundamental distributive conflict of the digital age. Another episode in this war is going to take place in the U.S. constitutional court. I am not going to outline the Eldred vs. Ashcroft lawsuit which will be decided soon. Click on the big “e” and find out for yourself. But mark my words: The decision will affect the future of public life in Western societies deeply and possibly lastingly.
As I have argued before, current copyright holders are about to exploit the existing socially institutionalised notion of property rights in order to perpetuate legal institutions for a future in which they will likely be entirely inadequate. The problem with such institutionalised myths of rationality is that people take them for granted. And with a deeply engrained (important!) institution as property, most people will never ask any questions.
Thus, I am grateful that the list of supporters of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit (those in favour of moderate copyright extensions) includes some sort of who-is-who of famous and inflential economists, quite a few of which have been awarded the Nobel Price in Economics: George A. Akerlof, Kenneth J. Arrow, Timothy F. Bresnahan, James M. Buchanan, Ronald H. Coase, Linda R. Cohen, Milton Friedman, Jerry R. Green, Robert W. Hahn, Thomas W. Hazlett, C. Scott Hemphill, Robert E. Litan, Roger G. Noll, Richard Schmalensee, Steven Shavell, Hal R. Varian, and Richard J. Zeckhauser. One of their lawyers is Harvard’s William Fisher whose thoughts on the challenges of digital reproduction and distribution for copyright law I have already recommended.
Hopefully they will be able to have a calming influence on the panel of judges.
Again: The copyright war is a secret war. But – in my opinion – will have more important consequences for our societies than the one currently fought on the screens. So check the lawsuit’s website and help out Mickey!