That’s My Chocolate Cake Recipe, Dammit!

Erik Hayden at The Atlantic with the round-up. Hayden:

When Chuck Schumer reintroduced the Innovative Design Protection and Piracy Prevention Act in Congress, industry insiders hailed it as a breakthrough for high-end fashion designers looking to protect their work from the copycats and ripoffs that inevitably appear after a trend comes into vogue. But as opinion begins to trickle in about the proposed legislation, some critics are bit more skeptical about the merits of the bill.

Rather than encouraging innovation, skeptics argue that fashion copyrighting could ensure certain designers maintain a monopoly on fashion trends and stifle the need for constant reinvention.

Matthew Yglesias:

Oftentimes, discussions of copyright policy hinge on hypotheticals. What if you couldn’t copyright recordings of songs? What would happen then? Maybe nobody would record new songs. Or maybe the quality of new recordings would be abysmally low. What would we listen to then? Won’t somebody think of the children?

Fortunately, in the realm of fashion we don’t need to speculate. We know what a world without fashion copyrights would look like, because we live in one today and we’ve always lived in one. It’s a world full of innovation in the field of design, and also full of various kinds of knock-off. Fashion leaders introduce new concepts, and cheaper imitators come along and follow the pack. In order to remain distinctive, the leaders are driven to further imitate. Meanwhile, everybody has plenty of clothes and styles in tie-width, skirt-length, etc. oscillate around. Yet somehow fashion designers and the members of congress who love them keep coming back to Washington looking for government-sponsored monopolies. The latest version of legislation to allow fashion copyrights has Senators Boxer, Feinstein, Hatch, Graham, and Hutchison as co-sponsors along with lead author Chuck Schumer.

Ezra Klein at Newsweek:

We’re used to the logic of copyright. Movies, music, and pharmaceuticals all use some form of patent or copyright protection. The idea is simple: if people can’t profit from innovation, they won’t innovate. So to encourage the development of stuff we want, we give the innovators something very valuable—exclusive access to the profit from their innovations. We’ve so bought into the logic that we allow companies to patent human genes.

And companies love copyright. They love it so much they persuaded Congress to pass the Sonny Bono Act, which extended individual copyright protections to the life of the author, plus another 70 years; and corporate copyrights to 120 years from creation, or 95 years from publication, whichever is earlier. That’s an absurdly long time, and it belies the original point of patents: does anyone seriously believe that a 40-year-old with a money-making idea is going to hold back because someone can mimic it 20 years after he dies?

At a certain point, copyrights stop protecting innovation and begin protecting profits. They scare off future inventors who want to take a 60-year-old idea and use it as the foundation to build something new and interesting. That’s the difficulty of copyrights, patents, and other forms of intellectual protection. Too little, and the first innovation won’t happen. Too much, and the second innovation—the one relying on the first—will be stanched.

Which is why we have to be careful when one industry or another demands more copyright protection for itself. “Intellectual property is legalized monopoly,” says James Boyle, a professor at Duke Law School. “And like any monopoly, its tendency is to raise prices and diminish availability. We should have a high burden of proof for whether it’s necessary.”

Drug development probably meets the burden of proof. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars to bring a drug to market. If Pfizer could just copy the drugs Novartis develops, Novartis wouldn’t have much reason to develop drugs.

Recipes don’t. You can’t patent dessert. Just ask Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Years ago, he created a chocolate cake with a molten core of liquid chocolate. The recipe became a sensation. Which meant it appeared on menus all across the country, with no credit to JGV. That’s a bummer for its creator, but a boon to all of us who don’t live in New York. We get to eat it anyway. And yet innovation continues apace in the food world. JGV is still a rich man. We can have our cake and eat it, too. (Sorry, sorry.)

Mike Masnick at Techdirt:

We’ve discussed over and over and over again how the fashion industry absolutely thrives without copyright protection. In fact, much of the research shows that it thrives because of the lack of copyright. The lack of copyright in fashion does a few useful things: (1) it actually helps disseminate concepts faster, creating important trends that drive the industry forward (2) it helps create important customer segmentation in the market, which actually increases the value of top designers (3) it drives fashion designers to be more innovative and to keep innovating. And all of it works. The fashion industry is highly dynamic, rapidly innovating and highly competitive. So it seems absolutely contrary to basic common sense to introduce a copyright law aimed at adding copyright to fashion.

So, of course, fashion designers and politicians keep doing it. Pretty much every year Chuck Schumer trots out just such a bill, and this year is no different. Reader Steve Phillips points us to the announcement of the bill being introduced and ReallyEvilCanine points us to a celebratory post by a professor who was involved in drafting the bill. This time around the bill has Senators Boxer, Feinstein, Hatch, Graham & Hutchison as co-sponsors, so there’s quite a bit of firepower, as they seek to build up protectionist policies that may benefit a few top designers, but will significantly harm up-and-comers. Just as we’ve seen throughout history, intellectual property protections lag innovation, rather than cause it. That’s because the top players in the space use those laws to reduce, not enhance, competition. This is no exception.

Of course, Schumer’s been unable to shove through this disaster-in-waiting the past few times he’s tried, so hopefully it goes nowhere again, but if you want to see regulatory capture in action, here you go. In the meantime, if this should actually go through, we eagerly await the first major supporter of the bill getting caught copying someone else’s design.

Reihan Salam:

In my opinion, copyright protection is a bad idea in general, but I recognize that this is not a widely shared view. It is, however, fashionable. (Drum roll, please.) Ezra Klein adds a more sober perspective in his Newsweek column:

“Intellectual property is legalized monopoly,” says James Boyle, a professor at Duke Law School. “And like any monopoly, its tendency is to raise prices and diminish availability. We should have a high burden of proof for whether it’s necessary.”

We should agree on that at the very least.

If you’re interested in these issues, I strongly recommend checking out Against Intellectual Monopoly, a book by economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine. You can read it for free. To get a hint of the myth-shattering that follows, the following is from the Introduction:

In most histories, James Watt is a heroic inventor, responsible for the beginning of the industrial revolution. The factsabove suggest a different interpretation. Watt is one of many clever inventors working to improve steam power in the second half of theeighteenth century. After getting one step ahead of the pack, heremained ahead not by superior innovation, but by superiorexploitation of the legal system. The fact that his business partnerwas a wealthy man with strong connections in Parliament, was not aminor help.

And it was only after the expiration of Watt’s patents that the steam engine really took off.

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