More Sawyer bashing

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One thing that really bugs me is when an author decides to use one of his characters to spout his political views--or any political views. If I don't detect it, it's taking advantage of the suspension of disbelief that people need to have in order to enjoy fiction. And if I do detect it, then it instantly ruins the flow and my ability to take this character seriously except as the author's mouthpiece. Here's another passage from Mindscan:
"So, I've watched the ebb and flow of copyright legislation over my lifetime. It's been a battle between warring factions; those who want works to be protected forever, and those who believe works should fall into public domain as fast as possible. When I was young, works stayed in copyright or fifty years after the authors' death. Then it was lengthened to seventy years, and that's still the current figure, but it isn't long enough."

"Why?"

"Well, because if I had a child today—not that I could—and I died tomorrow—not that I'm going to—that child would receive the royalties from my books until he or she was seventy. And then, suddenly, my child—by that point, an old man or woman— would be cut off; my work would be declared public domain, and no more royalties would ever have to be paid on it. The child of my body would be denied the benefits of the children of my mind. And that's just not right."

"But, well, isn't the culture enriched when material goes into the public domain?" I asked. "Surely you wouldn't want Shakespeare or Dickens to still be protected by copyright?"

"Why not? J.K. Rowling is still in copyright; so is Stephen King and Marcos Donnelly—and they all had, and continue to have, a huge impact onour culture."

"I guess..." I said, still not sure.

"Look," said Karen, gently, "one of your ancestors started a brewing company, right?"

I nodded. "My great grandfather, Reuben Sullivan—Old Sully, they called him."

"Right, and you benefit financially from that to this day. Should the government instead have confiscated all the assets of Sullivan Brewing, or whatever the company's called, on the seventieth anniversary of Old Sully's death? Intellectual property is still property, and it should be treated the same as anything else human beings build or create."

I had a hard time with this; I never used anything but open-source software—and there was a difference between a building and an idea; there was, in fact, a material difference. "So, you uploaded in order to make sure you keep getting royalties on DinoWorld forever?

"It's not just that," Karen said. "In fact, it's not even principally that. When something falls into public domain, anyone can do anything with the material. You want to make a porno film with my characters? You want to write bad fiction featuring my characters? You can, once my works go into public domain. And that's not right; they're mine."

"But by living forever, you can protect them?" I said. "Exactly. If I don't die, they never fall into public domain."

There are three basic theories being espoused here:

  1. Copyright needs to be extended to provide for the children of the copyright owner.
  2. Copyright is like ordinary property and so should get exactly the same treatment as ordinary property.
  3. Authors have a (perpetual) moral right to control of their creations.

The first argument is trivially disposed of through economic arguments. Say that I've produced a property that throws off a million dollars a year in income. I die and my children get that revenue stream for the next 70 years, after which the payments stop. How much worse off are my children. The answer certainly isn't a million dollars a year. Because of inflation (assume 5%) the million dollars that my children earn in year 71 is more like $28,000 in today's dollars. Indeed, when you do the net present value of this royalty stream you find that:

YearsNet Present Value
Years 1-7019,448,326
Years 71-infinity551,674

The additional benefit to my heirs offered by the copyright extension is minimal: less than 3%. Not exactly like they're being cruelly cut off. Even with the copyright cutoff at 70 years, a very modest savings rate in the first 70 years (3% of the total sum) would let them have exactly the same return in the remaining years as if copyright were infinite. Actually, this calculation shows that the copyright term is already way too long. The total net present value of this revenue stream is $20,000,000. By year 25, nearly 75% of that amount has been paid out. We could move works into the public domain much sooner with only minimal impacts on the creators.

This brings us to the second argument, that IP is like ordinary property and should be treated the same. Sawyer raises the hypothetical comparison of seizing Sullivan's family brewery. Again, economics lets us see what's wrong with this. Because the brewery is an object, transferring it to someone else doesn't create any new wealth, just moves it from point A to point B. It's a zero-sum transaction. By contrast, because IP is infinitely copyable, putting things in the public domain actually creates value in the form of the people who can now afford to see it who couldn't before and all the new works that depend on it. Yes, that comes at some cost to the rights-holder, but that cost is smaller than the overall benefit. This is a positive-sum transaction.

The last argument is a purely moral one. "I invented my characters and I don't want anyone else screwing with them". Unlike the previous two arguments, this is at least a reasonable position, though not necessarily one I'm sympathetic with (Educated Guesswork, the Porn Movie... hmm...). But primarily this is an issue of psychic harm and there are all sorts of uses of copyrighted material that cause psychic harm that are protected by copyright (parody, in particular). So, it's not clear what line Sawyer is suggesting and why this is a principled one.

UPDATE: Fixed arithmetic error pointed out by James Wetterau

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3 Comments

You know, if only people had been enforcing the ideas behind item #3 a few hundred years ago, that hack Shakespeare wouldn't have been able to write so many plays.

--John

How do you get less than 2.5%? I get that $551,674 is about 2.84% of $19,448,326, and is about 2.76% of the total $20,000,000.

On a non-arithmetic point: I'm curious how you conclude the character is the author's mouthpiece? Is it possible the author is just fleshing out a character by providing the character's political perspective, despite the author's disagreeing or not completely agreeing with it, or is this argument somehow clearly endorsed by the author? This seems to me a delicate line to walk, and one I've seldom seen done well, no doubt because most people have great difficulty holding in mind and fairly representing others' honestly and sincerely held beliefs, when they disagree.

Thanks for the correction.

You're right about the question of whether it's the authors opinions. Basically, I came to the conclusion on the grounds that it was (1) poorly executed (2) the kind of opinion that I would expect an author to have (3) only barely relevant to the plot. It's not like you really need much motivation for why you want to live forever....

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