Megan McArdle on The Knockoff Economy

Writing in The Daily Beast, influential journalist and economics blogger Megan McArdle picks up on a feature of The Knockoff Economy that we’re always happy to have someone notice — we are not IP abolitionists, and we think that IP law has an important role to play in encouraging creativity. And although we think that industries like food, fashion, and others that innovate without much reliance on IP have something to teach us about the future of traditionally IP-reliant industries like music and film, it’s important not to over-state the degree to which these very different sorts of industries are likely ever to run on the same logic.

Indeed, a central message of our book is that all creative industries are different. Some need IP more than others. Some don’t need it at all. Now, despite these obvious differences, the IP system tends to treat all creative industries alike. Copyright law, for example, imposes the same basic rules on hundred-million-dollar motion pictures and two-cent shampoo bottle labels. And patent law imposes the same rules on new drugs, which are often stupendously expensive to produce, that apply to Amazon’s patent on a “one-click” method of online ordering, which someone probably dreamed up and implemented in a few weeks and at very little cost. (Actually, that Amazon patent never should have been granted in the first place. “One-click” was obvious to anyone who thought about the issue at all, not least because the previous ordering method required two clicks.)

McArdle draws from our work something that we very much hope to get across — we should start thinking about ways to make IP law better at addressing the different characteristics of very different creative industries. Do fashion, food, football, and fonts need more IP? Not that we can see. Does the pharmaceutical industry need the high levels of IP protection it enjoys under current law? Well, considering how expensive it is to discover new drugs and get them through FDA-compliant clinical trials, the case for patent protection in pharma is much, much stronger. How else would pharma companies attract the kind of capital they need to get new drugs off the lab bench and into the FDA pipeline?

So fashion and food may be on one end of the spectrum (the low-IP end), and pharma on the other. And in the middle sit a variety of other, important creative industries. Let’s just consider one we tend to obsess about — music. For decades, music was a high-IP industry — that is, it relied on strong and enforceable copyright as the basis of its business model. Well, along came Napster in 1999, and we all know what happened next. The music industry’s copyright-centered business model went “poof”. And we doubt that there’s anything that the industry, or government, can do that will make copyright work again as the central piece of the music industry’s business model.

So it’s time to start thinking about what a less copyright-reliant music industry could look like. In some ways, that shift is already happening. The live concert, which is really selling an experience rather than a product, is much harder to copy than a CD or digital download. And so live music is re-emerging as a growth area. That’s just one of a host of changes that are, over time, likely to make the music industry less susceptible to copying. Time will tell, but we’re betting that in 20 years the music industry will look more like fashion than pharma. And it will be making a lot of great music — and some money as well.

Bob Dylan on plagiarism: “Only wussies and pussies complain about that stuff”

Bob Dylan is a provocateur, a habitual obfuscator, and a bit of a crank. That said, he’s also that rare and precious thing, a genuine artistic giant. His music will endure. And that makes his comments on plagiarism, reported just now, particularly noteworthy. Asked for his thoughts on critics who’ve noted that he often snatches bits of poetry and prose from other writers and works them into his lyrics without attribution, Dylan cut to the chase: “[Only] wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”

I can just hear Dylan saying “wussies and pussies” in his trademark nasal rasp.

Dylan added that in folk music,”quotation is a rich and enriching tradition”,and that in taking inspiration — and even lyrics — from other writers, he was “working within [his] art form.”  “It’s that simple,” Dylan added, “It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”

Yes, but not all of us do it this well.

Freakonomics runs a “tweakonomics” excerpt from The Knockoff Economy

The Freakonomics blog runs an except from the book where we talk about innovation in music — specifically, how musicians copy — and tweak — other artist’s songs.  We all know these as “cover” songs. They are immensely important in our musical culture — some of the best pop music ever (Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”, anyone?) has been covers of others’ songs.  And all this innovation is made possible, in part, because American copyright law allows it to happen.  Anyone is free to record a cover version of another songwriter’s composition — as long as they pay a (very low) fee.  And the freedom to cover hasn’t stopped people from writing new songs. It’s an important case of innovation without intellectual property, one which we see (actually, hear) everyday but don’t ever really notice.

Twisted Sister to Romney/Ryan campaign: “We’re Not Gonna Take It”

In the latest installment of a drama that plays out numerous times each election cycle, Dee Snider, the lead singer of ’80s hair-metal band Twisted Sister, is demanding that the Romney/Ryan campaign stop playing its now-ancient hit, “We’re Not Gonna Take It”, at campaign rallies. Just in the past weeks, similar demands have issued from L.A.’s Silversun Pickups and Paul Ryan’s (allegedly) favorite band, Rage Against the Machine. (Some enterprising journalist should ask Paul Ryan to name a single RATM song . . . .)

We understand that liberal musicians may not want their music to be associated with conservative politicians (most, but not all, of the complaints have this partisan alignment). But in most instances, the bands actually have no right to tell the politicians to stop. Why? Because, as one of us (Sprigman) and his UVA colleague and friend Siva Vaidhyanathan explain in this Washington Post op-ed, rights to publicly perform most popular songs are licensed by both politicians and venues as part of a “blanket” license offered by music licensing organizations such as BMI and ASCAP. So musicians can complain, but generally the law isn’t on their side. And that’s a good result, for reasons set out in the Sprigman/Vaidhyanathan op-ed.