Russ Roberts

Helprin on Copyright

EconTalk Episode with Mark Helprin
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Novelist Mark Helprin talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about copyright and the ideas in his book, Digital Barbarism. Helprin argues for an extension rather than a reduction in the length of time that authors have control over their work. He also argues that technology is often not attuned to human needs and physical constraints, claiming that tranquility is elusive in modern times. He sees the movement against copyright and intellectual property generally as part of an educational and social trend toward collective rather than individual work.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: June 10, 2009.] "Writer's Manifesto" is sort of thing publishers put on a book, descriptive. Book is defense of copyright and more. NY Times article, not happy with him for last 10 years, darling for previous 10-15 years. Called to ask for an article; tried to choose a topic that would not offend anyone; no one cares about copyright except Hollywood lawyers. Why shouldn't copyright last forever? Not in favor of perpetual copyright, or even of Mark Twain's tongue-in-cheek suggestion of copyright for a million years. Title read by the type of person who doesn't read the article; spread like poison ivy and attacked in the internet way. Became villain of those who want to abolish copyright because of suggestion of extending it another 10 or 20 years. People live longer; other reasons. Extension has been pattern since inception, particularly in Europe. Offended Creative Commons school. Famous Texas Ranger, Frank Parker, in many gunfights, something like 40, and won all of them, which meant the other person was dead. Technique hard to copy: instead of immediately pulling out his pistol and firing like the bad guys, he waited until he had a clear shot. Rather than respond on the internet, patiently wrote a book; two years after the attack, answer to the attack.
5:56Not talking about patents, focused on copyright for literary works, know more about that than music, art, etc. Practical experience; but also mean to extend purview to all forms of copyright, but not patents. Moral case for copyright and extension of it. On practical side, people argue extension of the length isn't necessary because the present value of future benefits so many years in the future is so small that it's not practically significant. Disagree with present value argument, first put forth by Macaulay, 1841, House of Commons copyright speech, speaking against a copyright extension that would have been brought about after his death. Famous example: Samuel Johnson would have preferred a plate of shin of beef in an underground shop rather than an extension of his copyright after his death. What possible good would it have done him? Wouldn't have moved him to produce anything else because it meant nothing. That's the present value argument. Untrue from history and personal experience. Everyone who works in life, and particular past a certain age and when you have children, concerned not with what just he himself enjoys, but with the people who follow him will enjoy. Inheritance recognizable in every civilization. We are concerned with leaving to our children, even great-great-great-great grandchildren. In addition, future benefits for people who are not even related. Macaulay said people don't care after they die, but use example of someone assiduous about reducing his carbon footprint for the benefit of those in the future. Not just monetary benefit. More than 600 copyrighted publications, hundreds pirated; spent whole life building an oeuvre of copyrights, to leave to children and grandchildren. Different from hotel or even from google which can be left in shares or ownership in perpetuity to people. Seventy years after death all the legal protections will be removed. Not arguing for perpetual copyright: this debate was had at the time of the Founding of the United States, and Founders said intellectual works cannot be locked up forever; give copyright protection in order to stimulate for a limited time. Queen Anne. This limited time makes sense: balance between public and rights of the creator. Not saying in perpetuity, but certainly not reduced. One reason: if you know that your heirs will be able to benefit from what you do in the long term, you will be less influenced by what is au curant; will look beyond the current horizon and make something of value something that will be lasting. Not just current fashion.
13:47Put Constitution aside for a moment. Highlight some of the confusion about the incentive effects of copyright. One is control over the work of art itself. Standard argument: Copyright gives you total control during the term of copyright. Once that's relaxed then competitors can print and profit from your work. Standard view: That will be good because there is competition, which will lower the price, so balance as with patents the monopoly part with the opportunity to spread more widely. Royalty part of a book is surprisingly small; people think author receives at least half of the cover price but very small. Shakespeare's heirs were his work under copyright it wouldn't really jack up the price very much; still would be limited by the demand curve. Control over the work itself: a lot of the appeal of reducing copyright is the idea that ideas should be allowed to ferment together and complement each other, remixing, altering, parody, satire, reimagining. Why against that? First, copyright doesn't give you complete control. Parody: one is free to do a parody of work very closely. Can't copyright any title. If book is called The Piano, someone else can write a book with same title. Can't copyright a plot or an idea, process, concept. Anyone can take, use, build upon them. Only 100 basic plots in the world. Hardly locked up. Can parody a book: specifically excepted from copyright. Law: everything anyone writes can be used by the blind, in Braille or recorded editions, no royalties need be paid. At the same time, if a blind person goes to his ophthalmologist he is charged--that's not free. Also, government finds ways to tax blind people, but designates that an author's work goes to the blind for free. Not to object, but just to point out the difference. Two Helprin books, Winter's Tale and Soldier of the Great War, in print for more than 25 years in hardcover; also available in paperback. With new pressures on publishers, they went to print on demand. If you buy these hardcover books from a bookstore or online, you pay $40; Helprin gets $0.30. Not going to effect the competitiveness. In paperback, the royalty to the author is 7.5%. Competition comes not from a reduction of price because you can exclude the author's royalties--for hardcovers 10%, if you are established 15% of retail--hardly matters. Another thing: characterization as monopoly. Not a monopoly any more than you would have a monopoly over a cabbage you grew in your garden. To be a monopoly, it would have to be a monopoly over books. Writing a book, 10 books or 12, not a monopoly--millions of other books to compete with; have to compete in price with those other books. Can't charge $100 for a paperback when there are hundreds of others you can get for $15. There is no monopoly.
21:14Heart of question--those were just the financial arguments--deeper argument, question of control is important. Authorial control. Semi-socialist states in Europe have stronger copyright protections than we have. If you don't have control over what you write then it can be changed. Nightmare, like 1984--anyone can change it has he wishes. No recourse for the author. Imagine a world in which anyone can attribute anything to anybody--in a way, the internet world. Value more than any money the ability to say something and keep it what it is rather than have someone else misrepresent it. Further implications: Originally there was in Western Civilization a corporate institutional model of culture--culture was dependent on monasteries, the Church, and the State. Monks copying manuscripts in monasteries, had to apply later on to the King to print something. The printing press allowed a shift to the individual voice. Private people could support themselves by mass renderings of their works via the printing press. When they did, someone else could print it, too; they could no longer make a living that way; cultural model would have reverted back to the institutional model. Queen Anne and her advisories said if no recognition and protection of these works then won't get them. Moved the cultural model from one with overseers--where only if you were working for somebody could you express yourself--to one where you had individual voice. One of the great pillars of democracy, but it depends on protection of that voice. Digitalization: suddenly have this power that allows instantaneous replication at virtually no cost, threatens to move us back to the previous cultural and political models, back the corporate institutional model where everybody will have to be somebody's employee. Overseers of every type. In academic world, might say you have freedom, can write anything you want. But to have tenure, you have to walk down certain channels, pass through various filters to get to that point. Shouldn't even have that test; all voices should be able to express themselves.
26:43Back to the authorial control issue. Understand concern, maybe things have changed; but there are inherent restraints on that process that might harm authorial control. True that because Julius Caesar is no longer under copyright, someone is now free to create a version with a different ending, violating Shakespeare's vision. But people don't want to read that; or certainly don't want to read it if it's not under his name. Remix--how much would that happen in reality? Dickens. People only want to read the original. Shakespeare has had 400 years in which the imprimatur has been set. Also, Shakespeare is unusual--the measure of the English language. With other things, more current, might have a difference. Two examples in this regard: one, when younger used to write speeches for politicians, always with anonymity and without compensation; never wrote a speech to express a policy Helprin himself had formulated. Only on two occasions, since stopped, was outed as the writer of a speech: Bob Dole, for two speeches. Once submitted a speech to the White House; they said it was great and they'd take parts of it and use it. Helprin: "No, you're not." Not one word to be touched; would be happy to work with the President, but nobody will change it but Helprin. It's copyrighted when you write it. The power of the President couldn't change that. High politicians treat speechwriters kind of like the way King Farouk might have treated a waiter. Not much respect, thought of as prettifiers. Another example: these days, students in schools starting at an early age--there's a bias for the collective--are taught that writing is a collective exercise. Helprin's children told him about a writing web, students edit the writings of the other students and then presented to the teacher. Hive mind, individual is unimportant, hostility toward individual rights. Younger people who are editors believe writing is a collaborative exercise. Didn't used to be that way. When first started out at The New Yorker in the 1960s, no one would dare change a comma without your consent. Now you submit a newspaper piece and you get something back and sometimes you don't even recognize it. First experience of that in the 1980s, wrote a piece for a magazine, was paid for it; magazine came out and piece was so badly written that he felt beyond shame--tortured; yet it had gone out in Helprin's name. Sued the magazine: they published an apology, paid his legal fees, paid him, and gave him a lifetime subscription. Otherwise have no power--newspaper, magazine, journal would have all power. They want to change what people write. Shakespeare is parodied, not copyrighted--Monty Python, all of Shakespeare in half an hour.
33:56Cultural issues. Bob Dole's acceptance speech, lyrical moment. Wrote speech, party platform, in January, delivered in August. They monkeyed with it; didn't monkey with the Dole's resignation speech. Helprin involved in resignation. Speech lasted 4-5 minutes; did write part about growing up on the prairie--in acceptance speech? A little in acceptance speech, most in resignation speech. Cultural issue: copyright and patent are hard issues; have something in common but also are different. Book: vehemence, anger, and bile on the other side. Bias toward collaboration, hive mind. There are good things about collaboration; Hayek, people cooperate through the price system without knowing that they do, and produce things that have value. Knowledge gets pulled together without anyone's conscious direction. Hive mind in book is broader than economic cooperation created by the marketplace. Why is that desire so pervasive? Represents the papering over of an incapacity. Environment it comes from: Crank, poison-pen letter, wrote "art is a dream of the commons." Art is not a dream of the commons. Corporation collaboration important; couldn't have civilization without it. We all depend on what others do, but we were all made individually except for Siamese twins, and even they have individual brains and think individually. Anything of real value in an artistic sense comes out of one person. Any work you can point to that is great or seminal or lasting comes from essentially one mind, one heart, one soul. Drawing on others, of course; thousands of years. But there is no collective in art. Sometimes there are artistic works that are collaborative: movies; Will and Ariel Durant, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. Hive mind is a dream of the commons is a kind of confession that they can't do it; want to make the world so that others can't do it. Music, orchestra: can't have Mozart's 21st Piano Concerto unless you have an orchestra, but it came from Mozart. Even playing music, can have Alfred Brendel playing the piano, wondrous, could have Ferrante and Teicher playing two pianos, but it takes the work and skill of one person. No getting around that, and if you try you have nothing. There is hive mind, no dream of the commons. Jealousy, yes, but other motives as well: naive romance of one government that will all work together, recent election, somehow will be united. Illusion. Can be united in some ways but not in the ways people romanticize; leads to death and tyranny. People who believe in world government are also people who rightly are most hostile to the idea of empire--but both the same. Hammering, desire to hammer; grows at the top. Helprin, age 14, thought that way; story. Dinner, home of Rabbi Siegel, Temple Emanuel in NY, son wrote Love Story, with classmate who was cousin. Aristotle Onassis was in town, richest man in the world at the time. Wanted to ask him to donate his money to the United Nations so they could spread it around and world would be a wonderful place. Went with friend to 79th St. Marina off of which the yacht was anchored; waited in garage for him, and he came through. Asked him if he would give his money to the U.N.; he said "No." H: "But why not?" O: "Who are you?" and got into his car and left. Helprin's prime motivation: visions of self like a saint, speaking to the U.N., who would be loved and worshipped. Crazy adolescent who knew nothing. Everyone will love everybody--and love them for being so good. Desire to extend the mores of the family to the world as a whole.
45:17Theme in book of how to live, reminder of Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith, recent book club series of podcasts. Seductiveness of machines; and acceleration of tranquility. Smith warns about false appeal of gadgetry (in 1759) and the material world; saw as them false gods to serenity and meaning. Distinction between humans and machines and why they contribute us to accelerate their tranquility. People are generally cooperative with influence, adaptive, shape ourselves in order to survive. World of the machine is more objectively powerful than we; one hell of a challenge of adaptation. No feeling, can do things that are extraordinarily complex. Don't hold a candle to us in terms of human complexity, speed, miniaturization; but we are far outclassed in certain situations. We try to adapt to machines, but machines should be adapted to us. "Reverse adaptation"--we mold ourselves to machines rather than vice versa. Walking down the street, thumbing blackberries, are molding themselves to the potential of the machine. Human beings require time for reflection, time for rest, stillness, ability to absorb rather than just being hooked up to a machine and made into bundles of tropisms. In terms of copyright and the way we live, to take the substance of things and open it up to rapid transmission, replication, storage, compression, alteration, piecing apart so as to adapt it to the new capacity of machines, is perverse. The machines should be made to tiptoe around what is inadequately called content, to treat it with respect and deference, which means not seizing it, replicating it at will, not piecing it apart and putting it back together at will. We have made the machine our master. Helprin never wanted to be on the internet, but has to be on it because everyone is. It has its uses but it can be overdone. New iPhone, people lined up and stayed overnight in heat and rain to get it. New paradigm of human existence, change the gestalt. Cheering as people left with iPhone. Twitter, tweeting addresses to talk to each other about their new iPhone experiences. Demeaning. Something worrisome about it; many glorious things about internet, quickness of communication; can be destructive. Email, not talking to wife. Education: between information and wisdom. Information has never been more available--e.g., EconTalk--and many things for a curious person to explore. Often confuse information with wisdom, stuffing of facts with knowledge. Brains as whatever the most advanced things we can create is. Stuff a computer with stuff. Do that with our children thinking it makes them smart. Doesn't help them learn them think. We tend to do things way too fast now. [Is that aptly a mantle clock chiming the hour in the background? Couldn't be more appropriately timed!--Econlib Ed.] Life is not a video or tennis game. Responses to article instantaneous. Common charge is that Helprin is a Luddite; but studied communications theory in 1960s with Boda, head of Bell Labs. Magnificent things on the internet; like any new power, have to know how to use it, what not to do with it. Problem is abuse of it, surrender to it, distortion of it. Luddites given a poor rap; not against machines in general, but looms were putting them out of business. Severely repressed, like Pullman strike. Winter's Tale is about the beauty of machines. Virulent and emotional issue to some people. Article touched a deep nerve.
56:48State of writing in America. Book saddening: great writing is dying, replaced by sensational, visual, less contemplative. Short run phenomenon? Pessimistic. Example: live in country, go to Sam's Club. Two years ago, could stay at book aisle; now the book aisle is 25% of what it was and all junk. Random House used to have 12 imprints, now three. Harcourt and Houghton-Mifflin, stopped publishing new books. Fewer slots in which to fit. Pressure to go to lowest common denominator to sell. Thanks for toleration on show about economics; only taken one course in economics, not 101, but tutorial by Tom Schelling about game theory. Great, creative mind. Future reading: Russ's kids like to read; he and his wife both like to read; don't have cable. Partly in your own hands. Challenging.

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COMMENTS (65 to date)
Barry Kelly writes:

For a more informed look at Helprin's ideas expressed in the book, see e.g. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lawrence-lessig/the-solipsist-and-the-int_b_206021.html.

Barry Kelly writes:

I feel compelled to add that I'm a software engineer myself, and so am in the business of creating and selling intellectual property. I too depend on copyright to protect the fruits of my labour. I'm not in favour of abolishing copyright, but by the same token, am all too aware of the power copyright gives to monopolies in the software space.

Adam writes:

Like Barry Kelly, I had heard about Helprin's book through the Lessig review. When I found out that you would be interviewing him, Professor Roberts, and that you found some value in the book, I thought that Lessig must have exaggerated.

Well it may be that he did, but he did very little in this interview to demonstrate it.

Helprin engaged in precisely the sort of cheap, petty attack on the character of those whose perspectives are not in line with his own that I find to be the most intellectually bankrupt. I couldn't believe he would accuse the people who disagree with him of being incapable of making creative works themselves, and therefore coming to their perspective out of jealousy. What a completely low blow!

Helprin never makes even the slightest attempt to understand perspectives other than his own; so it is unsurprising he is unable to properly criticize them. In the review Barry Kelly linked to above, Lessig quotes Helprin making bush-league mistakes like saying that Creative Commons is a license for software (when the website clearly states that it is not) and that the Creative Commons people are for abolishing copyright entirely (when Creative Commons is a license that would have no meaning without the existence of copyright law).

He never once quotes or refers to specific things said by specific people (other than maybe some angry e-mail he got) to use as an example of what the people he's criticizing believe. For all I know, he hasn't read a word of their arguments and has simply contented himself with strawmen and "just-so" stories about what they believe and why they believe it. This interview certainly does nothing to contradict that hypothesis.

He mentions Mozart but does not mention that the prodigy created an enormous volume of original works in a time and place that had no copyright protection on music whatsoever. Nor did Bach or Beethoven. That doesn't make a difference for the moral argument, of course, but it does sort of put a dent in the practical argument, and it would have been nice if he could have at least addressed it. If, that is, he was even aware of it.

I hope he doesn't dismiss my criticism as just the vile rantings of someone in the comments section of a website, and actually is willing to come here and discuss his ideas on their merits. That is, after all, what he accuses his opponents of being incapable of; it would be nice to see him practice what he preaches.

Dustin Klang writes:

The example of assumed profitability for monopolies is false; Monopolies can not simply charge any price with the rational expectation of producing profit. I may have a monopoly on a product that no one intends to purchase (i.e. Dustin's Famous Ear Wax). Also, the metaphor of copyrights to cabbage production is wanting: Cabbage is fairly fungible. If I create a particular strain of vegetable I can have (as I assume Monsanto has) legal claim to said vegetable via state protected intellectual property. while Mr. Helprin's logic contends that, since my vegetable competes in the marketplace with many OTHER vegetables, I would need to have a patent on ALL vegetables in order to maintain a monopoly.

Mr. Helprin also uses the same manor he decries to ascribes the same vile motives to his opponents: Without defending collectivist thought, one needn't assume that a different position necessarily indicates any 'confession' of inability, or any spite towards capable individuals.

I was very disappointed with the conversation which seemed to deteriorate into fairly stock conservative grievances: Technology making slaves out of people, the education of the youth is inadequate (certainly not what it might have been in the good old days). Bemoaning voluntary human action as demeaning, life moving "too fast". The next obvious Incarnation of this line of complaint would have been an anecdote of some youth (obviously a collectivist slave to technology) so engrossed with his I-Pod as to carelessly trespass on Mr. Helprin's well manicured lawn.

Often one mistakes a turn in cultural norms which runs counter to what one might desire as objectively negative. Mr. Helprin seems to use this sort of reasoning to justify his dissenting opinion of the independent choices rational adults have made concerning their behavior. I believe that this was wholly inappropriate in the given context, did NOTHING to help Mr. Helprin's copyright case, and may prove a disservice to his objects as listeners may thoughtfully conclude that Mr. Helprin seems to have a fair bit of amorphous wrath vaguely directed at changing cultural and technological phenomena.

I must apologize if any part of this critique has been addressed in the book, which I have not read.

Justin Dugger writes:

Halfway into the interview, and this interview just hurts me.

He states that he's not for perpetual copyright, but that there's a moral right to copyright for your posterity. I wish you had asked him where the line was drawn, because I see no reason offered for it to not continue in perpetuity, other than because Thomas Jefferson thought it shouldn't. Well, that same guy also gave us the instruments to override him, so that argument's flat-out stupid.

He demands the right to refuse alteration, because someone might attribute the altered meaning to him. I'm not a journalist or a lawyer, but isn't this covered by fraud and libel laws? And if public attribution is so important, what the hell is this bit about anonymous speech writing? If the politician is the one approving and reading the work, and the person who it will (usually) be attributed, it strikes me that the speaker, not the writer, should be afforded the right to change what will be said.

Attribution's a tricky subject; I won't say that the Creative Commons got it definitively right. As I understand it, they all require attribution, under the reasoning that some international jurisdictions require it. In contrast, I've seen some software licenses that demand the removal of attribution and endorsement on modification. Doesn't bother me much.

He's also got an interesting view on art and music; but he completely glosses over the truly American music form: Jazz. Improvisation is a fundamental and pervasive component!

Adam writes:

He demands the right to refuse alteration, because someone might attribute the altered meaning to him. I'm not a journalist or a lawyer, but isn't this covered by fraud and libel laws?

I was thinking about that as well when I listened. I don't know what the law is on these matters either, but it seems to me that you could have something more like trademark protections on anything attributed to your name, without necessarily needing to copyright the content itself.

J Cortez writes:

Helprin doesn't convince me. Maybe it comes off better in writing, so I'll have to read Digital Barbarism, but I doubt it will make much difference.

I am very hostile to his notion that somehow being anti-IP is some kind of pro-communistic bias. I don't disagree that some of the anti-IP people are anti-market socialists, but there are many pro-market libertarians that see IP as anti-market and a hinderance on human exchange.

It is very hard, very hard, for me to be convinced that any IP is good in any way. Everything I've read on the subject, points to IP being something that harms people and markets. Boldrin and Levine as well as Stephan Kinsella's work, in particular has totally changed my position on IP.

If you want a utilitarian viewpoint of why IP is bad, economists Boldrin and Levine's book is here for free: http://www.dklevine.com/general/intellectual/againstfinal.htm

If you want an ethical and moral argument of why IP is bad, IP lawyer Stephan Kinsella's book is here for free: http://mises.org/books/against.pdf

R. Pointer writes:

Dr. Roberts,

I wish you would have been able to push back a little by citing "I, Pencil". Though it is about a commodity, it can be simply adapted to other things such as Mozart's paper or harpsichord. We are unfortunately caught in a social web. If you read Mr. Halprin's webpage he seems to be blissfully unaware of his roots, writing, "Mark Helprin belongs to no literary school, movement, tendency, or trend." That is an amazingly curmudgeon thing to say.

While I may even agree that authors should have moral rights forever, he does a very good job of making me not want to agree with him. Towards the end of the podcast, I began to root for the WIkipedians to destroy whatever culture he is advocating. He is a conservative, and once again reminds me why I am a libertarian.

Sorry to be so negative. I have loved everyone of your podcasts to date.

[link added--Econlib Ed.]

Steve F writes:

Helprin's argument is a mess. He's using arguments which don't support his case, like the example of the political speech he wrote. Copyright as it exists today would have protected his work. The example has nothing to do with his claimed need to extend copyright.

He's also making basic factual errors. When he was arguing that great works can only come from one mind, I wanted to ask, "Like Gilbert & Sullivan"?

I also wonder who is forcing him to be on the Internet? He says he's "forced" to be on it. Who has the gun to his head?

More likely he's on the Internet because he wants to be on the Internet. He just doesn't want to want to be on the Internet. Or rather, he wants to be know as someone who does want to be on the Internet.

Nathan Hill writes:

The perspective on manuscript culture is wrong. There was a great deal of privately financed literary production and distribution before (and in competition with) the printing press. The manuscript circulation of Shakespeare's sonnets is but one example. Chaucer was consumed privately and not by monastic communities. For a citation, Rebecca Krug has written about lay manuscript culture in England.

Academics usually receive no payment for their writings, and many extremely important writers were impoverished. An argument that financial rather than moral rights to copy serve as an incentive is an empirical question, and it was a pity to not see the empirical side of it explored.

Adam writes:

Academics usually receive no payment for their writings

In fact, many academic journals demand payment from the authors, just to submit their papers--with no guarantee that they'll be published.

David writes:

This comment is really just a humorous anecdote, and touches upon Helprin's battles with an editorial staff that revised his work unbeknownst to him. The radio show, This American Life, ran an episode about false stories of origin. The second part was about a screenplay that Peter Sagal, host of Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me, wrote called Cuba Mine, which became the basis of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, the sequel to the original masterwork, Dirty Dancing with the dreamy Patrick Swayze and the surgically altered Jennifer Grey. Peter wrote a work of political commentary about the Cuban Revolution, particularly about how surprisingly young the architect's of the revolution were. The studio took the theme of Youth and the setting of Cuba and ran with it. Helprin described himself as a person who experiences shame and was tortured over the experience of having his name attached to an over-editorialized, poorly written piece. I could only imagine his reaction if he were in Sagal's shoes.

Russ Roberts writes:

Barry Kelly,

I deliberately steered the conversation away from software. Helprin's main concern is control of his writing. I tried to make that clear near the beginning of the podcast.


R. Pointer,

I was trying to raise the I, Pencil point when I talked about Hayek--it's somewhere past the 34 minute mark. I think Helprin, perhaps implicitly, overstates the value of the individual--if you're not careful you can miss the power of the division of labor which is the essence of civilization and the point of I, Pencil and Hayek.

Helprin is a particular kind of conservative--he is old-fashioned. He is unwilling to embrace the new for its own sake. Those of us who are more modern go the other extreme--we adore the new for its novelty. I've waxed rhapsodic about the Kindle and my Sigma DP1 camera with its Foveon sensor. These things create delight. But I respect Helprin's point about technology though I do not embrace it.

And while he certainly wants government to defend what he sees as his property rights as an author, I don't think he wants the government to deter technology in any way.

Matthew writes:

Mark Helprin is correct, machines should be adapted to us. This is why other mediums, like EconTalk, are replacing the market is replacing the printing presses at The New York Times and Harper. Mr. Helprin might find better writing if he were to look at the Library of Economics and Liberty, rather than Sam's Club. He could do this using an iPhone. He could also use it listen to EconTalk and discuss interesting topics while waiting on his wife to finish shopping. Since he doesn't like technology, he might also consider putting the book down and helping his wife.

Steve F writes:

Helprin may not want the government to deter technology. But, so far, that is exactly what every technical fix to copyright on the Net has done.

The Digital Millinium Copyright Act quickly became the Digital Monopoly Creation Act. Companies realized they could use it to get around fair use rights and prevent competitors from making compatible products.

Bruce Schneier (who would be an excellent guest) has many similar examples in his blog and most recent book.

Philip writes:

This was an interesting podcast, but I'm disappointed that you didn't challenge him a little more. (I only read non-fiction, so I admit at the outset that that may color my thinking.) Just a couple of quick thoughts:

A great many in-copyright works have now fallen out of print, and in some cases, no one knows who the copyright-holder is. What is to become of them? Are generations' worth of human creativity and knowledge really to be kept out of the reach of the general public for still longer?

As for Helprin's problem with mixing, it could presumably be handled through a far less-restrictive means than copyright. Wouldn't it be enough to require that any work that draws from another include a statement to the effect that, "This work is based [heavily/loosely/in small part] on [the original work]. [He/She] should be held responsible only for the contents of the original"? Moreover, since Helprin himself does not support perpetual copyright, his nightmare scenario seems inevitable even under his own system.

Aaron M writes:

I have to say I was rather disappointed in this podcast. Rather than talk about many of the seemingly obvious arguments for copyright (which which you can agree or disagree), Helprin's argument quickly devolves into ad hominem attacks on some rather creative straw men; those who oppose copyright are communists (bwah?), or that they aren't creative enough to produce anything of value. The second argument is particularly laughable, since those who have created copyrightable works have an obvious incentive to argue for the institution of intellectual property.

Nico D writes:

Most of the points I wanted to make have already been made, so I'll just add a couple:

For someone who claims to value stillness and contemplation, Helprin really seems to have engaged in very little contemplation of the position he's attacking. I haven't read his book, but in Lessig's review he quotes Helprin saying pretty vile and nasty things about IP skeptics, and he doesn't consider many of the decidedly non-socialist, non-collectivist arguments against the overextention of IP.

This reminded me of why Helprin's kind of high-minded conservatism is so off base. There was certainly great writing and thinking in the past, and it does sometimes seem like there isn't as much as there used to be, but we tend to look at 500 plus years of the accumulated cream of the crop. This work has only been accessible to a tiny minority of the population for most of that time. There was also plenty of vile stuff, coming from a society that was largely vile.

As Prof. Roberts has helped so many, myself included, understand, we live in the most dynamic and wealthy society in world history. The benefits of this outway the costs in almost every respect. I may be wrong about that, but Halprin and similarly minded conservatives don't seem to be willing to consider it- they're wedded to picture of moral and aesthetic decline- one which we've seen preached and refuted many times over the centuries, no?

J. Cress writes:

I don't have a firm opinion either way on the issue of copyrights, so I was hoping this podcast was going to provide some compelling arguments to ponder.
I was disappointed. This podcast was a list of opinions and Russ didn't interrogate the guest nearly as much as par. Early in the podcast the guest asserts a moral right to copyright (which, in my mind suggests a non-consequentialist justification) but later he concedes that there is a consequentialist balance between the rights of the author and the needs of society. As other comments have noted, this distinction is never clarified, but I'd argue such a compromise would be immoral if the first premise (a moral right to copyright) is accepted.

I can't remember a single compelling argument. The guest likes to use ad-homs to describe collectivists, which is fine and entertaining for some of us, but it is hardly a defense of copyrights.

There is not an economic rationale for copyright in this podcast, and even less of a rights based rationale. Instead, Mr. Helprin's ego was on fine display.

David Youngberg writes:

The idea that some anti-IP people are motivated by collectivist mentalities is very interesting but, notably, Helprin falls victim to his own collectivist leanings.

"Human beings require time for reflection...We require stillness and the ability to absorb things rather than just being hooked up to a machine and made into bundles of tropisms. [Emphasis added]"

But those who don't are not dead. We do not require these things. We may require them to accomplish certain goals, goals Helprin places high value on, but we do not require them in the absolute sense. We choose to not do them. Technology does not leap in our lap and hook into us like a drone from the Matrix. iPods are not cylons. Those people who Helprin paints as so grey are people who always wanted to move faster; technology simply allows them to do it. It's not that technology has enslaved us. Helprin simply believes that if people don't like the same things he does, there's something wrong with them. Such an attitude is the hallmark of the collective mindset.

Jim F writes:

Not the best podcast. While Helprin is a talented novelist, his thinking here was a mess, and he seemed unable to make a coherent argument.

He never makes a philosophical case for copyright grounded in ethics or natural law. His pragmatic arguments were poor and at times seemed to weaken his case. (For example, if an author who has a legal monopoly on his work, is only able to extract less than 1% of the revenue, how much value can he possibly be adding?)

Ultimately his argument came down to 1) the founding fathers included copyright in the Constitution, and thus it must be a good thing; and 2) Mark Helprin by right deserves to continue to be paid for work completed years ago.

I went back to June 1st podcast -- 45 seconds of Richard Epstein was all I needed to clear my head after this muddle.

Sam writes:

I haven't read the book yet but I think I'll buy and read the kindle edition (I'm only kinda joking).

I'm only half way through the podcast but I couldn't help but be struck by Helprin's remark about the printing press liberating individual expression from constraining overseers. I can not see how he could reconcile this with his distaste for new technologies. Surely the internet is another step forward in the liberation of individual's artistic expressions, the internet does not send rejection letters. In fact it is imaginable that publishing a Kindle friendly book would require little more than a pc, software and an internet connection. The internet could then allow writer's freedom from their editorial and publishing overseers. One obvious retort to such a possibility is that the necessity of the filtering function fulfilled by publishers. However with so many pairs of eyes searching the internet we get virtual "best sellers" in other media e.g. Econtalk and the Randy Pauch last lecture thing. So I don't see why the same couldn't occur with written media.

Nethy writes:

Let me challenge you on that point...
That's the most important line in these podcasts.
I found I was constantly waiting these challenges, but not many materialised. The definition of monopoly, as Dustin mentions above, is one. The other thing that makes this podcast interesting is bringing an economist's perspective to various topics. That could have been applied here too.

The moral argument is hard to comment on. But I did get the feeling he was drifting in to the abstract to a various positions beyond scrutiny.

But in certain areas you shouldn't get away with such abstract statements. The potential gains from shortening copyright may not offset the losses from it. The net benefit is up for debate. But, the gain are real. Especially now when technology will probably allow free & easy distribution. It's not just the $0.30 that can be eliminated.

In any case, I agree with the above. Not the best podcast. More like a general grumbling at 'kids today,' then an argument. It was kind of a mess.

Eva writes:

I just received a very polite e-mail informing me that my previous comment had been removed because it looked too much like spam.

It simply read "I love my iPhone."

This was intended as a) a very simple bit of truth and b) a satirical response to the podcast. Let me elaborate.

I live in London, most of my family is in Germany, and my friends are spread across the globe. The iPhone (or any other reasonably advanced piece of consumer electronics for that matter) allows me to make a connection with any of them, wherever I am. The literal touch of a button.

So if you see me walking down the street, thumbing my iPhone, please do not mistakenly believe that I am enslaved by technology. Rather, I am a monkey using a tool, choosing to use a tool. I did not move to London because the iPhone told me to, I use an iPhone to bridge the distance that is a result of my (hopefully rational) choice.

Technology frequently challenges the status quo, and that is very scary. But just because relationships change, that doesn't make them disappear. Just because someone takes someone elses work and changes it, that doesn't destroy it. In fact, something exciting and new may come from it. And collaborative writing isn't all bad - just look at Wikipedia. OK, bad example.

I guess my point is that just because people do things differently today compared to the 50s, that doesn't mean we're uneducated, uncritical morons without the ability to reflect on ourselves. Our lives are structured very differently and we adapt to that - often facilitatd by the use of technology. Flat out rejection of everything "different" usually doesn't get humanity anywhere.

So this is why I love my iPhone. Maybe you should try it sometime.

Aaron M writes:

I suppose this raises the question: What's it going to take to get Larry Lessig on the podcast?

William Love writes:

Helprin employs (at least in this talk) a fuzzy idea of what a monopoly is and falls into the intellectual flaw of misdefining the market.

The legal definition given for a monopoly (Black's dictionary) states that monopoly is a market condition existing when only one economic entity produces a particular product or provides a particular service. generally this includes the power to fix prices and exclude competitors -- within the relevant market, and the willful acquisition and maintenance of that power.

Copyright self defines what the market is - the material distributed, and provides exclusive rights to the form of ideas.

The definition of "market" neatly illustrated in the classic board game, MONOPOLY. Note, in the game you achieve monopolies in minor markets with the goal of achieving a monopoly in a major market.

Intellectual property is not a singular thing irrespective of its lack of physical presence unlike intangible property (bank accounts), it multiplies irrespective of whether it is written down or not or is more complex than a simple idea. Helprin has benefited with transforming other people's works simple ideas or complex stories. He stands on the shoulder's of giants, as do we all.

The real issue here is who should lay claim to the dissemination of ideas, when can authors monetize concepts they have partially derived from others, and if reformulating a work is not essentially copying?

This is not a debate of the collective vs the author, it is a debate about giving credit where credit is due: some to the writer, some to the individuals from which they draw material from, and some to the readers who invest their own imagination and effort into reinterpreting the work.

jake from slovakia writes:

mr. roberts, it would be fun to know, who´s argument seemed did you find more convincing: michele boldrins´ one or mark helprins´ one?

Phil H. writes:

For me it was delightfully ironic that my wife tried to talk to me as I listened to Helprin berate me for attending to this "hive mind" media and not my wife.

For me, EconTalk is must listen podcast even though I often do not agree. Challenging and thoughtful. One of the great joys of the Internet is being able to listen to people in their own voice discuss their life's work.

I have to agree with most of the comments above regarding the weak arguments, straw man and ad homenum attacks. This podcast was not up to the normal EconTalk high standards - although entertaining in an odd way. Let's call it a mulligan.

Nethy writes:

I second Aaron's request to get Larry Lessig on the podcast.

In general, these discussions about IP can be really fascinating. They are both fundamental (what is property?) and practical (can we create more wealth by doing X?). We are at a point now where IP is an extraordinarily large piece of the pie, the total amount of wealth in the world. Getting it right is important

Morton Blueberry writes:

Copyright Law is invaluable to the creator of valuable ideas. To the no talent creatively vacant tomb-raiding hacks, who could not entertain themselves a day alone, it gets in the way. You rob people not yet to be. To defenseless unborn. Not only can you not even entertain yourself a day on even simple fads, you can not even understand things that last 1+generation.

Intellectual property is tax but not defended.

Andre Kenji writes:

Most of his arguments are terrible. That´s one of the worst Econtalk of all time. One of the reasons that many classic books are so popular among publishers is precisely because they are in Public Domain. The problem is not only royalties, but the fact that you waste precious time with negotiations.

And long copyright time creates bizarre situations, where authors have to negotiate with grand-grand-grand sons of authors to simply quote a book.

BoscoH writes:

I guess I'm the only person who enjoyed this podcast. Helprin's strongest point is the moral point that copyright gives creators control over their creations, so that they can't be changed or appropriated without consent. That's an old school view with which I sympathize. His weakest point is his view of machines. The machines he derides were created by people, authored (if you will) to do specific things, much as his books were authored to tell specific stories. The funniest point was Helprin's complete misunderstanding of "economics" as "finance", and the restraint Russ showed in correcting him ;-). I was waiting for Helprin to ask Russ when the economy would recover or what his stock picks for this week were! But seriously, Helprin's whole discussion was pure economics: incentives and trade-offs.

I have a question for Russ springing from this podcast, but incorporating themes from Chris Anderson and others. Russ, why do you write and publish your fiction as books? I've known a few authors who likely sold within a factor of 4 the number of books you have, did regional book tours, hit the major book fairs, etc. And not one of them got to quit their day job. So I'm guessing it's not money. I've seen one author (Guy Kawasaki) who has sold an awful lot of books in two decades concentrate his efforts on blogs and twitter. I'm guessing that for him, writing books is a small piece of the overall puzzle.

AHBritton writes:

At the risk of being repetitive I will attempt to make a couple of points... and I am actually not quite as dismissive of Helprin's comments as most. As with many EconTalk podcasts I listened with a combination of intrigue, thoughtfulness, and anger. I have taken this to be a good thing whether or not the anger ends up dominating my response. At first I managed to do what I think many commenting here were unable to do and look past his immediate derisiveness towards opposing arguments. I admit he has some interesting points regarding the legal leverage one has when wielding the power of the state to enforce their dominion over an area of life (an intentionally loaded wording :)). Honestly I do sympathize with the frustrated writer worried about the alteration of his, for lack of a better term, intellectual property. Not being a strict [insert epithet here (libertarian/anarcho-capitalist/Hayeckian/Rothbardian)] I am not strictly and morally apposed to state intervention in this area.

Similarly I am not impressed by his moral argument that there is a necessary right to intellectual property protection for an indeterminate and ever expanding period of time. He seems at first to tie it to the increasing length of an individuals life, but then seems to argue that it is also moral as a matter of inheritance. As a brief side-note, although I doubt any of us want to leave our offspring destitute, a more beneficial gift may be to simply instill in them the best values you can regardless of their monetary position.

That being said the argument is not entirely unpersuasive from a practical standpoint.

This leads me to the more repetitive portion of my comment. Why was he so immediately derisive? I can't recall a single point in which he seemed to seriously consider an apposing argument instead of treating those who disagree as imbeciles. While you may find him an individual with persuasive ideas, where were you Russ to challenge the tacit arguments and implied logic of his statements? To point out one example related to your previous podcast, he seemingly attacks the whole industry of publishing through experiences with Sam's Club.

I might point out that in my comments in the Platt episode I both affirmed my affinity for smaller book retailers and their ability to access specialized publications as well as large chain book stores who have a staggering stock of books old and new.

Although he may lament the state of modern (fiction, non-fiction?) writing I would dare him to seriously defend the position that people in the United States have access to fewer and less quality publications than at anytime in the history. The mere fact that he doesn't like the best-sellers he is able to browse while his wife purchases other completely unrelated items is hardly a persuasive argument.

There are many more things I could say... however many of them have already been expressed in one way or another so I'll stop my rambling here.

John S. writes:

The Helprin interview was interesting and I don't disagree with his position on copyrights as vehemently as some of the other commenters here. I do disagree with what he said about the state of writing in America. From a reader's perspective this is a golden age. I can get any book I want -- in any language I want -- and have it delivered to my door in a couple of days.

I would no more expect to find a good book at Sam's Club than I would to find a package of family-sized toilet paper at Barnes and Noble (though you can probably buy both at Amazon).

tw writes:

Russ,

It looks like I disagree with the majority of the comments already posted because I enjoyed this podcast. As for the comments about how Mr. Helprin was all over the place, it seemed to me that he was clear that his main point was that the author should retain control over his own work, and that copyright law should reflect that. His example of a magazine article that he wrote and that was distorted by the magazine was solid.

Further, I found his logic solid concerning copyright laws with respect to the blind. Why indeed should the government force authors to forfeit their royalties and their control where the blind are concerned while, for example, dry cleaners are not forced to provide their service or their products for free to the blind? I thought that point could have been expanded upon.

Lastly, I know your underlying point through these discussions is how complicated copyright law is....to formulate, to write, to update, to enforce, etc. I guess one area you could have gone more in depth with Mr. Helprin is exactly what reform(s) he would like in the existing law. He implied a few things via his examples and historical discussion, but it wasn't so precise or overt.

Ak Mike writes:

Interesting podcast, although I am with the majority here in finding Helprin's points flawed.

Responding to tw, Helprin's points about his magazine article (and his presidential speech) were not solid. In both these instances he was dealing with someone with whom he had a contractual relationship, and could enforce his right to control his work (if that was part of his agreement) without copyright law.

Copyright law is concerned with rights against persons that the creator has no contractual relationship with. Specifically, it is a right to prevent people from copying. Helprin explains that he wants these rights to last for generations after his death as a legacy. But wouldn't we all like the work we have done in life to keep paying new money for generations? Unfortunately, for the rest of us, the only legacy we can leave is the money we retained from the work we did in life. Helprin has not made a moral case why his work should be treated differently.

Alex J. writes:

Much ground has already been covered, so I'll focus on one point, which I believe will shed some light on the whole discussion.

Helprin made the point that bequeathing something has value. This is an argument that the duration of copyrights should not be based on the life of the author. It's all well and good to point out that in the 18th century some guy made an invalid argument, but it doesn't really address the fundamentals. Helprin doesn't engage the best arguments against vigorous copyrights, just a few bad ones.

Copyright is an artificial legal regime created to induce authors to publish. (So says the US Constitution anyway: "to promote the progress of science and useful arts"). This creates a benefit for authors, but it also creates a cost to readers. The readers have to pay more than they otherwise would. To some extent, this is a transfer from readers to writers, and thus encourages authorship. Critically, there are also transaction costs, and dead-weight costs. Some people would read a free work, but not pay for it. The author is not getting their money either way.

The writer is encouraged to write by copyrights by their benefit to him at the time of writing. However, the benefit now from revenues in the future has to be discounted, since we prefer things now to things later. Because of compounding the benefit now to owning the rights to publish a book in the distant future are minuscule.

On the other hand, the costs of copyright to the future reader occur right when he would be reading the work. They don't get discounted. So the more copyright is extended, the more the costs outweigh the benefits.

Additionally, as the costs of transmitting works shrinks, there are more and more people who can view a work very cheaply, and so any costs due to copyright come to bear more and more heavily. (For a while, there were no copyrights between England and the US. Due to the expense of printing, publishers could still protect themselves by putting out a "fighting edition" that sold right at the marginal cost, swallowing up the copier's profits. As Boldrin pointed out, this strategy worked.)

As duplication and distribution tech become more available, legal efforts, like the DMCA, will have to be more and more burdensome in order to enforce copyrights. Helprin, as an author, would like to maintain control of his works. I, as a consumer, would like to own electronic equipment without the government's legally mandated monitoring hardware in it. I'd like to duplicate my wedding videos without having to jump through hoops created to enrich movie companies in part for works created long ago.

Gavin Andresen writes:

I found myself disliking Mr. Helprin more and more the more he talked.

His point about books being like cabbages (that farmers have property rights to their crops, but that doesn't mean they have a monopoly on produce) seemed like a good one until I thought about it a bit. Words aren't cabbages; cabbages eventually rot.

And that, I think, might be the key to more reasonable intellectual property rights law. Proposals that require copyright holders to pay a small fee to renew their copyrights every decade or so would be a fantastic improvement, solving the "orphaned works" problem and the "tragedy of the anti-commons" problem (both of which I wish had been discussed in this podcast).

NormD writes:

You have to be practical

Helprin and the podcast only deal with the extremely simplistic case of a copyright on a printed page, but that world is fast receding. Copyright is dying because of the practical problems of enforcing it in the diverse new forms that information can take.

Lets say that morally, via our legal system, we decide that it is wrong to photocopy a page in a book and give it to a friend. What is the practical effect of this law? Does it stop people? Is it a good thing to make millions of people into lawbreakers? Do we want police to try to arrest people for this "crime"? Even if you think the law is correct, don't you think that the practical impact of enforcing it would render it a bad law?

I, for one, despise laws that are selectively enforced.

Like it or not you are stuck with two choices: 1. Maintain an absolutist copyright law that protects a few authors/owners but makes billions of people into never-prosecuted criminals. 2. Limit copyright law in timeframe and scope to make legal what billions of people do everyday and deal with the fallout.

My guess is that we won't lose that much creative expression.

Nico D writes:

I third (?) the idea that it would be great to have Lessig on the podcast. I don't agree with all his ideas, but he's a profound thinker on these issues and his refutations of Helprin's arguments seem pretty persuasive.

Also, someone mentioned it before, but I just want to stress that, in the time of Amazon and the Kindle, pointing at the book selection at Sam's Club as a sign of our declining literacy seems, well, very ignorant.

Lastly I want to agree with some of the posts here that Helprin did indeed make some coherent arguments that shouldn't be dismissed off hand. But he didn't follow the minimal responsibility of making a good faith attept to understand ones intellectual opponents, as Lessig's review persuasively argues.

Russ Roberts writes:

I don't understand much of the animosity that I find here in the comments. I'd be eager to hear from you via email as to why this podcast made you so angry.

I didn't agree with everything Helprin said. But I found much of it to be thought-provoking. The standard argument in favor of a short patent or copyright period is the tradeoff between monopoly pricing (bad) and profit to encourage innovation (good). In the case of the written word, Helprin's point is that the monopoly pricing advantage is very small. He's right. Royalties are small. So is the monopoly power of any book in competition with other books and other forms of education and entertainment. It's an excellent point I hadn't thought about. He was not addressing patents or software copyright.

Technology can be dehumanizing. Can be. Most of the time it enhances the human enterprise. I try to limit the time I spend on email but it's hard for me. I think it's a good idea to be aware of this. Maybe you disagree and don't believe there is any tradeoff between using technology to interact with humans vs., say, face to face. Or you might draw the line in a different place than I do thinking it OK to spend a higher proportion of your time on email than you do talking to your spouse and giving your spouse all of your attention. Or maybe you think the whole thing is a non-issue. My guess is that both of us, you and I, draw the line in a different place than Helprin. But I don't mind hearing a different viewpoint.

I doubt Mark Helprin thinks wikipedia is a Communist plot. But he is right that there is a collectivist urge in education and elsewhere. It's what Hayek was talking about in the Fatal Conceit (p. 18, I believe) and being aware of it is important. Maybe Helprin exaggerates the role of collectist romance in various internet activitities and elsewhere and overemphasizes the romance of individual action. If so, he's wrong and I believe a thoughtful person would be wrong to reject all forms of cooperation especially the division of labor.

I have been trying to get Larry Lessig on the program. He just moved. Hope he'll be a guest in the future.

Keep listening and learning out there, please.

Niccolo writes:

I thought Heprin's arguments were really poor in defense of copyright.


On copyright, he actually makes a good point for getting rid of it. Publishers, not writers, are the primary beneficiaries of copyright - at least financially - which was fine when nothing more cost effective was available. That said, however, we now have something better, faster, stronger, and more reliable that everyone but the dead uses to get their information, and if the royalties are so negligible, then we won't really have such a huge drop in demand to produce if publishers and giant agencies just died off.

Besides, public policy isn't the right tool to affect the glory and pride other individuals have in their work or are remembered for; it is, however, a better tool at pushing the strings of monetary allocations.


Second, on his attempts to frame the debate as individualists = pro-copyright vs. collectivist commies = anti-copyright, he misses the mark completely for me. I'm a libertarian individualist like almost everyone else here at econtalk. Yet I think copyright is the equivalent of a wall of cardboard boxes attempting to stop the ocean waves from hitting shore. Why am I suddenly a pinko-commie if I see that the future is one in which we DO need to bend to the sea change of progression.


On the third cultural issue, working out on an electronic treadmill, listening to my iPod, running along a good looking young lady with a similar iPod trying to watch a pirated version of Transformers 2 I stopped in my mind and laughed about the absurdities of this podcast episode and how it is just so strange that those who damn technology as a substitution of flash for substance are inevitably forced to use technology just to prolong their message.


I find that, in terms of this topic of technology and its role in society, there are basically two kinds of people - and a third middle which many, though not as many as they think they are, fall into. Embodied in an album called Of Natural History by an experimental rock group that I like called Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, there will always be this grand battle between those who model softer versions of the Futurists and those who model softer versions of the Unabomber (who was kind of the anti-Futurist).

In any of these debates about how society today is too materialistic, too fast, too violent, too concerned about technology and not taking enough time to smell the roses you always have a constant theme of fear on the side that condemns people for - I think, rightly - giving into their seductions. What is this fear? Are the old really so forgetful of their parents? When the days of horses were eclipsed by the days of automobiles, was it not your generations that threw their hands into the air with as much glee as we do for our marks of technology?

It is a fight between progression and romanticism that will forever play out between generations - and will ultimately always end up the same, with the Futurists winning and the romanticists dying off clutching to their candles and leather books.

Adam writes:

Professor Roberts,

I tried to take the high road in my own comment, but it's hard not to be angry when you've been insulted. Helprin argues that those who are not persuaded by intellectual property arguments do so because they are jealous of people who can actually make a living under the current setup. Considering Helprin is a highly published author, it was a very cheap shot.

My main probably really isn't that I disagree with him. A lot of people I respect believe in intellectual property laws. My problem is that he is condescending and dismissive; his arguments are ad-hoc and he doesn't seem to care about taking the time to understand the perspectives of the people he criticizes. When you're one of the people who shares that perspective, such an approach is frustrating to listen to.

All said, I think it's very important to listen to arguments you don't agree with to try and learn from them. And I loved the Alan Wolfe podcast, even though I mostly disagreed with him as well. But Wolfe was respectful and made his case with integrity. Helprin does have some insights I hadn't thought about, and so all said I'm glad to have listened and learned. But it was difficult to listen to a man whose contempt for people who thought the way I think was palpable and not even veiled.

That's all.

NormD writes:

The problem is that the legal system has the one term "copyright" that used to apply to limited situations, but now applies everywhere.

You cannot make copies of your or your family's wedding photos because the copyright is owned by the photographer.

Singing "Happy Birthday to You" in public makes you a copyright infringer.

If you buy WKRV in Cincinnati DVDs the background music has changed because the DVD producer could not clear rights for the music.

The Girl Scouts are sued for singing songs around a campfire since it is a public performance of the song.

ASCAP wants fees for cellphone ringtones claiming the ringing of the phone is a public performance.

Billions of copyrighted items are unusable since no one can track who the current copyright owner is and people don't want to get sued if such a person comes out of the woodwork.

The AP claims that blogs quoting from their articles are infringing their copyright and wants to be paid.

All the mess with DRM springs from copyright holders trying to enforce their rights.

Helprin is picking a small piece of copyright law and say "I like this" and saying that we must keep the whole mess because of that little part. He supports suing the Girl Scouts and people making backups and singers of Happy Birthday.

Oded writes:

Russ,

I'm sorry that you feel that the comments on this page are "attacks" or "vitriolic" as Helprin believes. I personally think it is great that your podcasts elicit such strong responses (good or bad) and that your listeners are so discerning and intelligent. It's really a testament to your good work.

I also disagreed with most things Helprin said, not because I disagree with all the arguments for copyright but how Helprin frames them (I think people above has stated this quite well already). I think much of his thinking is muddled - for instance, if we are not to be "slaves" to machines, wouldn't he be more supportive of open source software which allows individuals to retain more control? I know you said that he is strictly focused on books but that's the point (and I think what frustrated people) - you cannot argue copyright just about one subject without thinking about the unintended consequences for other goods and services. What about the fuzziness of current copyrights in the software sphere, which in many cases is similar to a copyright of ideas that he says cannot occur? Most of what Helprin said in this podcast (e.g. not wanting his speeches rewritten) is both silly (the contractual relationship mentioned above - the NYT has just as much right to exert control so they don't feel 'shame' about what they publish) and off-topic (what does a speech have to do with whether copyrights should be 20 years or 75 years?). Much of his concern seems more about trademark (again, described in comments above) than copyright. Hopefully his book is more illuminating.

Anyways, I came to write some really extended comments but found that Econtalk's audience had (as usual) beaten me to it. Keep up the good work.

Oded writes:

One last comment!

Russ, you said "Keep listening and learning out there, please." I'm someone who probably would have agreed with Helprin's arguments just a few months ago, but have really been moved by some of your recent guests (I read Boldrin & Levin's entire book after the podcast). I think many of the responses on the website are as a result of having so many intellectually interesting guests on the podcast - so we are out there there learning!

R. Pointer writes:

As a practical concern:

Boldin's book - free - available on the interwebs.

Helprin's book - 24.95 - no electronic version.

Let's see who influences more people.

I am unconvinced of a monetary indefinite right. My own reading on the history of copyright is that the Europeans tend to separate moral rights & monetary rights. I think everyone can agree that you can never lose your moral rights because people have an interest in knowing the source of the material; it is a part of the quality of the product that cannot be stripped out. If I copy a scene from obscure novel, someone somewhere will catch it and my own integrity will be diminished. So I don't think that is a problem.

There is a really good question as to how authors will get paid. I think back to Adam Smith's books - he had advertisement for each new addition. If quality sells, then it could work on this model. Maybe.

Peter Twieg writes:

Russ,

I think my fundamental concern about this podcast isn't that Helprin's argument can't be made, or doesn't deserve to be made, but just that Helprin doesn't seem to be a particularly qualified individual to be making it for various reasons, and thus it becomes difficult to challenge him on his points without risking embarrassment (which is something I believe that you've always wisely chosen to avoid doing on Econtalk.) Many of the more frustrating Econtalk interviews (including this one, imo) are those where it's clear that you have to kinda put the kids' gloves on.

BoscoH writes:

I just read Lessig's neo-fisking of Helprin on Huffington Post. And let's be clear, it's a fisking covered over with "silver" Rustoleum and buffed out (badly) with Turtle Wax. If you haven't had the magical experience that helps you see why this style of argument is just wrong, you haven't lived enough. For some of us, it was some loony girl in high school who showed up everywhere we did and wrote us notes trying to "prove" why we should go out with her. For others, it was a boss that dissected every word in an email to make us the bad guy after we'd realized that she (or he) was completely full of malarky. But again, if you can't see how socially retarded the style of argument is, you just haven't lived enough.

But all you really need to know about Lessig's article is in the comments section. 4 comments, including one from Lessig, before comments were shut off. The first comment from someone who had read Helprin's book notes that Lessig and Creative Commons aren't even a proverbial pimple on Helprin's book's back cover. The first comment also noted that Helprin brings a certain elegance to his discussion that is obviously lacking in Lessig's whiney fisking over a sleight that is, at worst, a sleight in passing. Earth to Larry. You have pretty much won whatever you thought the argument was for vast swaths of content produced and shared on the net. Just shut up, enjoy it, and try to be gracious and classy. Instead, Lessig and what are obviously many of his minions who came visiting this comment section for the first time (above), prove Helprin's point by example.

Now to Helprin... I need to read his book. Here, I'm just responding to the podcast. I'm not down with hating the machines, and I'm not worried about collaboration. The alternative with most kids is that they create nothing rather than create with a group. When I was growing up in the 80s, I didn't like that collaboration meant "everyone copy BoscoH's work and we all get A's". Yeah, that annoyed me and turned me off to collaboration as a default modality. But what I'm seeing in schools today is an embrace of divide and conquer, separation of concerns, and dare I say comparative advantage where the kids actually end up making things that are bigger than any of them individually could make, and that give the top contributors pride in what they've done. I make a good living making tools that make this kind of instruction easy and I'm kinda proud of it.

And back to Lessig... Perhaps the greatest monument to him having already won the war is that Flickr uses Creative Commons licensing of contributed content. Users are free to choose whatever CC license they like for all of their photos. The reality is that the defaults are too restrictive for what's there. I work with teachers all the time to help them find pictures that their kids can borrow and make little picture story books out of. Under the educational fair use criteria, they can pretty much use what they want, how they want, regardless of which CC license flickr user JoeBlow has chosen. Under the doctrine of nobody is ever gonna notice anyway, the same applies. Our company also has a place to host the electronic versions of these creations, and some of our school customers have really embraced the Internet portion of things, and that's where CC licenses get in the way more often than not. If Flickr users choose "non-commercial", we can't recommend those photos. We have to search out photos on Flickr that have a license compatible with our commercial intersection with education. Realistically, 99% of the stuff on Flickr wouldn't possibly make anyone a red cent anyway, and the owners ought to be flattered that some kid wants to include their photo in a story, or some little commercial entity wants to pretty up its web site with them (attributed, of course).

What CC does in practice is enable a mostly theoretical non-commercial remix culture while keeping a lot of decent content that would otherwise have no value out of anything that touches the commercial realm. Meanwhile, commercial aggregators like Flickr (Yahoo!) get the benefit of being the exclusive providers of the millions of these little pieces of content. I think Mark Cuban has it all figured out when he says that stuff will be "free" but not freely distributed. It's a far deeper observation when you include mob created content.

If my goal were to create a remix culture, I'd simply champion the virtue of the public domain for most of the things that most people create. I've seen a lot of people lock stuff up and never see a cent. I see too many people putting stupid conditions on free usage that result in no usage. Authors like Helprin that can actually make a living straight up selling their creative works are the exception, not the rule. Most people would end up financially ahead by sharing and monetizing in non-obvious ways. The last thing I'd do is create and popularize a system more complicated than advanced bridge bidding, ala Lessig or Stallman.

Oliver writes:

1. Russ, I actually read some of the comments before listening to the podcast. After listening to the podcast I can tell you that the comments had me expecting something completely different. Maybe there's a selection bias going on in the comments, i mean in terms of who decides to comment on the issue.

2. Re R. Pointer, there is an electronic version of Helprin's book; a kindle version is available for $9.99 over at Amazon.

Adam writes:

May I just say that, in spite of remarks about the nature of comments in both directions here, I have found these comments to be some of the most interesting and varied of the podcasts where I've paid attention. It's true that to begin with they definitely had a negative bent, but even those I don't think had quite the "animosity" professor Roberts attributed to them (though I clearly am biased).

But the responses to this original negativity have really added a lot of depth to the discussion. All in all, this interview did exactly what it should have done; got a lot of people thinking about the topic and talking about it. I apologize if my original comment was unnecessarily negative; ultimately I think this was a good podcast addressing a subject I am very interested in.

wes writes:

1) Why does Helprin think that writing a book is like owning a business? Though a stone mason may be able to pass on his business to his heirs, he does not receive a monopoly from the governement enabling him to obtain revenue for life + 70 years for prior work.

2) Concern about false attributions may be a valid concern, but this is a slender stick in the bundles of intellectual property rights. His conerns could be addressed through much narrower (and less costly) means than copyright - much less an extension of the term of copyright.

3) Most copyrights are owned by corporations, which is not per se a bad thing, but in thinking about copyright and individuality in the way that Helprin does, corporate copyrights pose a problem. Not only are individuals' expressions generally appropriated by their employer if expressed "during the scope of employment" (which has come to have an enormously broad definition in the courts), but copyrights owned by firms also keep expressive resources out of the hands of individuals.

4) The copyright term tends to be extended (retroactively!) every time Mickey Mouse is about to fall into the public domain. Isn't that interesting? I wonder how well the political economy of amending the copyright statute balances the diffuse interest of the public against the concentrated interest of copyright holders.

5) Incremental, repetitive extension of the copyright term is not copyright for a "limited" time in any meaningful sense of the word.

Dan Lundmark writes:

As an advocate of open source and open media, initially I had mixed feelings listening to this podcast, but by the end I really appreciated Dr. Roberts' interview style.

Russ, thanks for giving Mark space to air his views. It seems that many people have taken sides and don't stop to really listen anymore. I decided to try and put my views aside and listen carefully.

After listening through, my views remain mostly unchanged. I think Mark is somewhat of a Luddite actually, with his caricaturization of Blackberry and Twitter use. He brushes aside the value of these innovations. (I have made very profitable connections via Twitter, for example).

On the topics of copyright from an author's perspective, it seems to me he is narrow-minded. The podcast mentioned artists and musicians and the value of incentive. However, thousands of artists are thinking differently, as evidenced by the rapid growth of sites like http://www.jamendo.com/ where artists choose to benefit from sharing their creations.

At any rate, I have put Digital Barbarism on my "to-buy" list at Amazon, along with Against Intellectual Monopoly by Michele Boldrin and David Levine, which I understand is one of the best perspectives against copyright as we know it. Thanks again.

Lee Kelly writes:

Much to my surprise, I actually enjoyed this podcast.

One thing Helprin helped me realise is that even where I object to copyright, it should be phased out gradually rather than abolished. He reminded me that economic planning depends on expectations, and that even laws I disagree with may need to be reliably enforced when expected, otherwise all other economics planning is rendered less secure.

Philipp Kübler writes:

Interesting podcast. And good to hear a dissenting voice in the medium in which most are very anti copyright. I think he makes a good argument for copyright.
Now it would be great to have a podcast with Mr. Lessig.

I can't agree with his negativism about the new technologies and how people adapt to and change their lives with them though. True, machines should serve humans and not vice versa, and everything can be overdone. But since man made the first fire, civilizations where build around new technologies and human societies evolved together with technologies. I don’t see why it’s demeaning to be enthusiastic about a new cool tool.

And his complaint about the internet destroying literature. Well, to be a bit provocative, I guess when the alphabet was invented there were a lot of storytellers complaining about this vulgar and impersonal act of writing, destroying this refined form of human exchange and creativity - storytelling.
Alphabetical Barbarism if you want. OK, that’s a bit far fetched perhaps, but you get the point. I guess we will see new, wonderful forms and expressions of human creativity on the internet in the future. Maybe the art from of literature won't be that important, mybe it will. But there for sure will be other great stuff.

On the hive-mind fetishism, I think he has a point though. The wisdom of crowds can very quick become the stupidity of crowds and there is a lot lost when the individual behind an opinion or statement isn’t visible anymore.

Reminded me of a great text, “Digital Maosim” by Jaron Lanier written in 2006 for edge.org in which he critics the over enthusiams of many when it comes to the hive mind, i.e. wikipedia. Just read it again. Great stuff.

Paul Downs writes:

Helprin is a throwback from a time when information had to be stuck to pieces of paper for distribution. He seems to be confusing his desire to be paid for writing with a right. The profession which served him well is being destroyed by the Internet, and he can't get over it. We're living through a paradigm shift, and it's going to be difficult for certain business models, like novelist and publisher. I don't feel sorry for him.

Paul Downs

Blaise Cirelli writes:

In the interview, Mr. Helprin relates a story about himself as a teenager asking Aristotle Onassis to donate his money to the UN.

Mr. Helprin claims that his real motive for asking Onassis to give money to the UN was because Helprin, rather than Onassis, wanted to receive the credit so that he could be loved and worshipped. Mr. Helprin imputes all giving outside of one's family to an adolescent narcissism.

I find it disappointing that Helprin takes his own warped view of philanthropy and universalizes it to others.

Mads Lindstrøm writes:

On Lawrence Lessig

Multiple people have suggested Lawrence Lessig as a guest, presumably so that he could talk about shortening copyright (balancing Helprin's views). Even though I do think Mr. Lessig makes a compelling argument, I am not so sure he would be an optimal guest. First, judging by the comments to this post, having Mr. Lessig as guest, would be like brining bread to the baker. Would it not make more sense, to bring a guest, like Helprin, who believe in prolonging the copyright term? Maybe one who had compelling, but different arguments than Mr. Helprin. Second, Mr. Lessig has shifted his focus from copyright, to fighting corruption in government. If he could talk about that, in stead of copyright, it would be great though.

Rajan C writes:

I agree with most of the comments here: I too thought that this podcast did not meet the usual high standards set by Econtalk. Helprin argues that people don't "dare" change what Shakespeare has written because of his fame; after 70 odd years of protection, if the author's writing is very compelling, it is unlikely that it will be altered (people will want to read the original). If it isn't, then it doesn't really matter whether or not it is altered by others. So I don't see how lengthening the period of copyright further will help Helprin leave his legacy. It almost seems that the legacy in this instance that Helprin is worried about is the (meagre) financial reward that Helprin seemingly decries.

Leonardo Aranda writes:

Helprin's argument against the use – or as he puts it, abuse – of machines is that these go against human nature and that we shouldn't adapt our lives to fit the capabilities of these machines. In other words, that the status quo of the human nature should be preserved. But the current state of humanity is far from its origin. Throughout time humans have developed tools that have altered and shaped a new nature. What do we know now – what does he know now – that would make us think that the state of technology a few decades ago was the optimal? I wonder if there were some who criticized the abuse of human-built shelters because they were against human nature.

Borealis writes:

Halprin convinced me that copyright rights should be significantly shortened, not lengthened. All his convincing examples of the benefits of copyright were based in the first few years.

The only argument for lengthening copyright was so that he could leave something to his future generations, and that is very unpursuasive.

Gandydancer writes:

Halprin is deaf to the inanity and blind to the implications of his own comments. And Roberts didn't point this out to him.

E.g., the one "of many" defenses of extending copyright he chooses to advance most prominently is that it will give authors the incentive to write for the ages if their royalties also extend for ages. But he claims he's only asking for a twenty year extension, so this wonderous effect is supposed to result from extending copyright from 95 years after death to 115. Absurd.

But, of course, he's lying when he denies he argued for the infinite extension of copyright in his Times piece. He said those who write and compose should "be freed from a form of confiscation not visited upon anyone else", and "No good case exists for the inequality of real and intellectual property..." But he gives no sign that he's self-aware enough to even know that he's lying. He claims he spent two years readying his reply to criticism, and he doesn't even realize what he said. Unbelievable.

His declaration that great work is always the product of the individual and collaborative work is never great certainly puts the King James Bible in its place. Hack work, at best, I guess. Explains why, unlike Shakespeare, there is a considerable market for Bowdlerized versions? Or not.

Not wanting your words to be edited is a matter to be addressed in an employment contract, not an argument for copyright extension. Non seq.

Non seq. Incredible. Absurd. Lie. You're kidding. Straw man argument. Practically every sentence from Halprin's mouth deserves one or another or a similar comment.

Roberts seemed to conduct the interview in a haze of sentimental admiration for the fellow. Maybe he once did something to justify it. No evidence on display here, though.

rshill writes:

I have not read Mr. Halprin’s book so will restrict my comments to the interview itself. I found this to be the weakest EconTalk podcast that I have listen to, and it had nothing to do with the subject matter, nor the point of view of the guest. First let me applaud Dr. Roberts for attempting to present multiple sides of a very interesting and challenging subject. Unfortunately, Mr. Halprin was a poor choose of guest and far below the caliber of guest that I am use to hearing on EconTalk. I am use to interviews with people who can clearly state their point of view, and then address the arguments made by those who oppose them. However, rather than addressing the legitimate arguments in opposition to his point of view, Mr. Halprin resorted to the old technique of simply belittling anyone who disagrees with him. The high (or low) point for me, was when Mr. Halprin relayed a story of himself to show how foolish he was at age 14, he then followed up by stating “that’s how I thought as a crazy 14 year old adolescent who knew nothing, and that is how people think today”; but who are the “people” he refers to? Presumably he assumes that everyone other than himself has the intellectual capacity of a 14 year old. What is worst, however, is that throughout the interview, Dr. Roberts failed to make Mr. Halprin be accountable to for his generalization of those who disagree with him. I felt as though I was listening to a political talk show rather than an intellectual discussion.

In the end I will just ignore this interview. I will request however, that instead of getting a guest to present an opposing, yet equally empty point of view, that Dr. Roberts find a guest who can intellectually present the benefits extending copyright law and address the arguments against it.

Erik writes:

Late to the party, but so much to say... A lot has been covered, so I'll restrict myself to what I haven't seen addressed too much above. I am not at all versed in copyright law, so I need a narrative that I can hang things onto. Here's the story of copyright as seen from one particular angle.

Let's say that I'm a writer. I am not a published author yet, but every other attribute of the writer is present in me: I like to write, I write carefully, and I'd like other people to read what I've written. Let's say I have written a book. I could have a copy at my house that my guests could read. My heirs will inherit the book object that I've made. I transformed materials, turned them into a printed volume containing symbols, and now that object is theirs. Physical property. Simple.

Except that not many people get to read the book. So I get the idea that maybe I should print it up. I print up 500 copies, give them to my family and friends, place a few at bookstores, place an ad in the paper. Most likely, my heirs will end up with two boxes of my book. If at some point a few years after my death, somebody unrelated to me finds my book at an estate sale, reads it, likes it, and decides to publish it, should my philistine heirs who have never done anything to get the broader world to know my book be rewarded by getting a share of the profit? I would think not, but the State in some places says they are entitled. Helprin seems to agree.

Anyway, I am more ambitious than that. I want more people to read my book. So I contract with a printer and a distributor and advertising agents etc. in order to increase the readership of my book. I find that these three functions are conveniently managed for me by one company, the publishing house. It's a business relationship, so both they and I get out our green eyeshades and negotiate around how much each of us puts in and how much each of us gets out of the deal. Our contract says something to the effect: I grant you a right to copy this; here's how we split the revenue; the right expires at some point in time or under certain conditions.

Individual authors do sometimes contract with publishers for the terms of the right to copy, but the reality of carrying out the creative side of their profession is such that most of them have an agent who does most of the haggling for them.

Now I will show my ignorance of the economics of publishing by quoting as fact some dimly remembered discussions on Internet boards: being published is not all that easy. There's a lot of competition. Publishing houses have something that a lot of people want. What tends to happen in situations like that? Prices go up. What does that mean for the economics of publishing? Unless I'm at the Thomas Pynchon level of celebrity or above, the publisher would have the crushing upper hand in our little parleys. I suspect agents help move the line a little bit. If Helprin only gets a few cents per copy of his book sold, it's because his publisher was in a position to exact those terms from him. And he had to enter into that agreement in order to effect the kind of wide distribution that he dreamt of. He had no other choice: publishers were the only game in town. Royalty terms are a blatant testimonial to how powerful of a direct impact publishing houses can have on the remuneration equation for writers. The passage of copyright laws shows their indirect power. If Helprin was so concerned about his heirs, I would expect him to express his opposition to the American copyright arrangement more clearly. After all, at the time of a published author's death, the copyright holder may no longer be the family. And they might not only have any financial obligation to the heirs, but also be sitting on the author's works with no intention to publish them in any serious sense of the word. Isn't that an usurpation just as grotesque as being offered for free download on a server in Russia?

On some things I think Helprin is right: writing by committee is bad; an author should be allowed some control over how his work is reproduced when it is displayed as being his work when it is in fact not (fraud or defamation law, as pointed out above); finally, I think everyone is well served when there is a reasonable copyright term (creation + 40 years, so that children can get residuals; I don't see death + 70 being justified as anything more than the publishers' pleasure) that is reasonably enforced (private copiers get minimal attention, commercial pirates get pursued) with flexible authorial control over re-use (I have a hunch that a world where this was decided on more of a voluntary/individual basis than is now the case would still be livable and might be more lively).

Given a reasonable copyright framework where there still is an incentive to produce and to reproduce and to sell copies, I find it illuminating to look at the whole of of what makes a work still worth publishing long after it came out. In a way, what really is being discussed here is a phenomenon that occurs only in small part because an author somewhere wrote something. I know Mr. Helprin won't like even the whiff of this argument, but I think that's mostly a sign of self-importance--another writerly attribute that I share.

The fame of a book, the special qualities that give it the status of something that is still publishable years after it came out, is the outcome of a fortunate chain of events: a writer produced a string of symbols and sent it out into the world to get published; a publisher printed and distributed it; opinion leaders read and reviewed it; the public bought it in sufficient numbers. If any one of these phases is missing, those heirs of mine are again going to be wondering what to do with those boxes full of old books, and no pangalactic infinite copyright act would ever earn them a cent from all those cleverly ordered symbols.

So while art is not necessarily a product of the "dreaming of the commons", the reproduction, distribution, selling, and enduring-making of a written work is the product of a lot of actions by a lot of people. It's a good thing we recognize the author's contribution has a special role in this chain, but we shouldn't let his distorted sense of his own indispensability lead us to advantage him excessively.

Jerome writes:

Russ,

I must say I was very disappointed with this episode. I love EconTalk, but Helprin was incoherent and insulting (as so many previous commenters have noted) and a poor choice of guest. I second the call for a decent proponent of copyright laws as a guest on your show. Also, I am surprised that you found his argument about the collectivist urge in education at all compelling. I can't see how having students read and edit one another's work is anything but a good idea, from an educational stand-point. And any evidence that it is a widespread practice? I wish it were.

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