Thursday, September 24, 2015

Happy Copyright Expiration to You!

Patty and Mildred Hill, who deserved every penny. What did Warner Music ever write? Via USA Today.
Dr. Krugman:
Item: The C.E.O. of Volkswagen has resigned after revelations that his company committed fraud on an epic scale, installing software on its diesel cars that detected when their emissions were being tested, and produced deceptively low results.

Item: The former president of a peanut company has been sentenced to 28 years in prison for knowingly shipping tainted products that later killed nine people and sickened 700.

Item: Rights to a drug used to treat parasitic infections were acquired by Turing Pharmaceuticals, which specializes not in developing new drugs but in buying existing drugs and jacking up their prices. In this case, the price went from $13.50 a tablet to $750.

In other words, it has been a good few days for connoisseurs of business predators.
You bet! And I'd add to that the Warner Music Group, compelled by the federal judiciary to give up the $2 million a year it collects on the song we know as "Happy Birthday to You", composed by the schoolteacher sisters Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893, or 30 years before Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack Warner founded the movie company from which Warner Music descends; ruling that the rights Warner acquired in 1988 (when it bought the successor company to the Hills' original publisher) apply only to the sisters' piano arrangements, not to the melody or the lyrics.

That last one is not an unalloyed victory; the people won on a bit of a technicality, and nobody challenged the anomaly according to which the duration of copyright is determined on the basis of the rights of the creator (it expires now 70 years after the author's death, which in the case of Patty Hill would be next year anyway) but profits a purchaser corporation, an entity owning intellectual property that doesn't even have an intellect. I can understand why an author needs to be allowed to sell the rights, but I can't understand why she is regarded as having sold the special deference society gives to creators along with it.

The Volkswagen story is awful. We think of this as a relatively progressive company (I recently praised it here for its struggle against the Tennessee Republicans to support the unionization of their Chattanooga manufacturing), but the behavior of whoever is responsible—an elaborate plan to evade the rules on smog-producing particle emissions with a computer program enabling a car to be within the regulations when it's taking a test and violate them egregiously all the rest of the time.

There was a nice NPR story on how VW got caught: a nonprofit organization, the International Council on Clean Transportation, commissioning a public institution, West Virginia University, to check out the diesel vehicles from 2009 onwards, in 2012, measuring their road performance against their test results. Humble people doing their job, without any prior suspicions, on an entirely public basis.

That's Dr. K's point, of course. The hero of this week's business stories is government by and of and for the people, against corporate greed, using regulation and research, because the market can't be trusted. (On the Volkswagen case also see Dave Johnson at Crooks&Liars.)

I'd add that, as everybody knows, the Turing Pharmaceuticals case could never happen in any other country than the US because only in the US are there no working regulations on drug prices, and this is connected to intellectual property law and our bizarre American belief that corporations "create" anything. And, Mr. President Obama, with all the respect I habitually give you, if you really want that Trans-Pacific Partnership for whatever reason it is you've been unable to convey to the population, the US will have to accommodate itself to the rest of the world on this issue, and not the other way around.

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