Intellectual property and the arts

At the January 28 general meeting, we discussed issues of intellectual property and the arts.


The Comics Journal, Who owns the Man of Steel?

Priceonomics, How Mickey Mouse Evades the Public Domain



Under capitalism, people can own capital, or things that can be used to make money. Often, the role of intellectual property in capitalism is overlooked, but it is very important.

The insight of capitalism is that–by owning the right to all profits derived from ideas–people who create new ideas and inventions can get rich by coming up with great ideas. Capitalism thus encourages the creation of new ideas.

But is this really true? Today, we look at the experiences of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who created one of the most iconic pieces of American culture: Superman. Despite inventing the character that has made hundreds of millions of dollars of profit in movies, comic books, and elsewhere, Siegel and Shuster both died penniless. We also look at the issue of public domain. Disney movies are usually based on stories in the public domain (eg, Aladdin, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, etc, which were all written a century or longer ago), yet they have managed to keep their own contributions to the arts and culture out of the public domain. A clever study found that copyright–rather than benefiting society–prevents society from benefiting from ideas. A study of book sales found that sales of titles skyrocket once they enter the public domain; oddly, books from the last few decades are harder to obtain than books that are a century old. In sum, robust intellectual property protections do not protect artists or encourage the development of culture; they help large corporations profit off of the ideas of ordinary artists and restrict popular access to culture and the arts.


Discussion questions:

1) Capitalism means private ownership of capital. Ideas are a form of capital because they can be used to create wealth. If private ownership of ideas does not protect creators or encourage creation, is this a good point of entry to get others (progressives, or even conservatives) to start questioning the basic tenets of capitalism?
2) What would the best socialist policy on copyrights look like?  Does it mean abolishing IP entirely?  If so, how can socialists recognize and promote creators?
3) Should society take an active role in funding the arts (e.g., through the National Endowment for the Arts)? And, if we do, how do we decide what art is worth funding?
Some ideas:
Without the publicly funded National Endowment for the Arts, there would be no live classical music, live theater, and many art museums would not exist. We already live in a world with extensive public funding of the arts. Could an expanded Endowment be the best way to support artists in a socialist world? Could this replace copyrights as support for artists?
Additional questions for subsequent intellectual property discussions:
Should society be interested in the prospering of arts that are not commercially successful (ie live theater, live classical music could not exist without the National Endowment for the Arts)? More specifically, Should society be interested in the prospering of arts of which minority groups are the primary consumer?
Society is much richer when creations are freely available for anyone to enjoy and to build upon with their own ideas. Yet creators cannot profit if they cannot own their creations. How do we balance the needs of creators with the public benefit? How much should a creator be able to profit from her creations when doing so means keeping them out of the public domain? $1 million? How long should creators be able to own their creations before they are released to the public domain?