Mickey Mouse and investment in music

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Tyler Cowen writes:
I question the almost universal disdain for the "Micky Mouse" copyright extension act. OK, lengthening the copyright extension does not provide much in the way of favorable incentives. Who innovates with the expectation of reaping copyright revenues seventy-five years from now? But this is a corporate rather than an individual issue. Furthermore economic research indicates that current cash flow is a very good predictor of investment. So the revenue in fact stimulates additional investment in creative outputs. If I had my finger on the button, I still would have pushed "no" on the Mickey Mouse extension, if only because of the rule of law. Privileges of this kind should not be extended repeatedly due to special interest pressures. But we are fooling ourselves if we deny that the extension will benefit artistic output, at least in the United States.

I absolutely agree with Tyler that if (say) Disney had more money it would most likely use that to fund the production of more content. Disney's expertise is in cranking out creative content, not in managing a large investment portfolio. So, if you think that for some reason the world would be better off with more creative content being produced (i.e. assume tha the amount being produced now is inefficiently low) it's not crazy to think that subsidizing the content creators would be a good idea. Now, the money for that has to come from somewhere, but

That doesn't mean, however, that extending copyright is a good way to do that. In fact, there are a number of reasons to think that it's an inefficient way to subsidize new content production. The first is that the subsidy accrues primarily to organizations which have very old content. These organizations are likely to have little creative continuity with the organization which 70 years ago created the original content. So, why should they get singled out for a special subsidy? Is more new, exciting, content likely to be created by subsidizing Disney or Pixar?

The second reason is that extending copyright isn't a simple transfer payment. It creates deadweight loss because ofthe people who aren't able to use the content freely. It can even act as a disincentive to the production of new content because it stops you from incorporating sections of the original content in your new work. (This is Larry Lessig's point).

For these reasons, I do think that the copyright extension is worthy of disdain. If we think that not enough new content is being produced--though how anyone with access to Amazon.com could think that I have no idea--a simple transfer payment would be a far better way to subsidize its production.

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3 Comments

Another point is nothing requires Disney to use their subsidy to produce new content. Their shareholders might be happier if they paid more dividends, for instance.

Tyler's broader point (his entire book In Praise of Commercial Culture boils down to this point) is that extending property rights makes people richer, and richer people buy more art. But your point that the owner (personal or corporate) of a copyright, 75 years down the road, will not necessarily even be in the business of producing art is well taken. They might instead use the money to buy a solid gold car.

What bothers me about extension is that creators like Walt mined folk tales and other existing creations that were in the public domain at the time. We don't want to throw a monkey wrench into that pool of cross-pollination.

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