Copyright and Calvin

The “generous soul” Mark thanks is, of course, generous not only with his nights staying up over a hot scanner, but also with Watterson’s and Andrews-McMeel’s property. The page he links to is a cultural treasure, a crime, and also a pithy lesson in what’s wrong both practically and morally with our current intellectual property regime. It’s obviously good for everyone that stuff like this should be available free at the click of a mouse, and obviously bad for everyone that we’re not developing a workable mechanism to send creators the right signals about what they should make more of (not to mention putting food on their tables and braces on their kids’ teeth).

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

5 thoughts on “Copyright and Calvin”

  1. This is an especially interesting case considering that Bill Watterson passed up probably tens of millions of dollars by refusing to merchandise his work in any form – no Hobbes dolls, no t-shirts, no TV or movie spinoffs. And by doing so, he saved us from ourselves. For me, reading Peanuts would be a better experience if I could come to it directly, without the memory of all the Snoopy insurance ads. (And on a related issue, Watterson stopped while the strips were still great, unlike Schultz.)

  2. I am suspicious of this argument. It seems to me that it is only "obviously good for everyone" depending on your point of view. If you want free use of anyone's property for your own convenience, I advocate you always leaving your front door unlocked and generously allowing anyone who chooses to take your car whenever they want. After all, the work which enabled you to buy the car doesn't entitle you to make any decisions about how and who uses it.
    Happy thoughts and good feelings (such as, "It's obviously good for everyone that stuff like this should be available free" and "[needing to] send creators the right signals about what they should make more of") don't entitle anyone distribute someone else's intellectual property on the web.
    In my observations, creative people often don't need to be told what products people want, because they are driven to create the products they want to create. And they deserve the hard-earned compensation.
    If Bill Watterson (and it is Watterson, not Waterson — I notice the "free" archive doesn't give him an up-front attribution) wanted to provide the work for free, he might have chosen to create his own archive, instead of publishing "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes" in
    October 2005.
    Maybe copyright is out of control. But if it needs to change, it should be done legally, not be posting it free on the web.
    I can only assume you and Mr. Kleinman are giving explicit permission for your work (textbooks, etc.) to be digitized and freely distributed by any professionals using them for any purpose with no royalties?
    This is my favorite blog, but I cannot understand this cavalier attitude about creative property. It seems to be self-serving to me.

  3. You're confusing the legal facts of intellectual property, which I think should be changed, with its economic essence. Note that I said the web page was a crime [under current rules]; I've written a lot about this and never advocated that we unilaterally appropriate what is protected by law.
    This has nothing to do with being cavalier. The key sticky problem about this stuff is that the marginal cost of consuming it (unlike my car and other chattels) is zero: if I listen to a song, or read a comic strip, there's no less of it for you. This is a fact, not an issue with an ideological or political angle. The other fact is that efficiency requires everything to be sold at its marginal cost if we can figure out how to do so: zero for the consumer. BUT we also need to be sure the artists (and publishers) are selling their labor at marginal cost, which is the part simply appropriating their work and putting it on the web doesn't accomplish.

  4. This post led me back to your linked-to discussion about different copyright regimes and pricing mechanisms, along with your review of Lessig's book. I must have missed it when I was out on the road, but in any case am glad I found it now. Really great. As a starving "artist" (well, okay, manufacturer and performer of commodity music), I want better market signals, dammit!

  5. Mr. O'Hare – I very much appreciate your response and further explanation of your premise. I apologize for the tone of my original comment, which is more a reflection of my poor writing than my personal feelings. The issue certainly has dimensions which are not part of the paradigm under which I formed my ideas.
    I am skeptical about the feasibility of this model. How does one become a part of the artistic community? Wouldn't a large number of bad artists join the community because there isn't a proper economic motive to quit? It's kind of hard for me to worry about the "real" artists (whatever that really means), because it seems to me that they will find a way to produce their work under any system.
    However, I admit that your vision of shared artistic output is a pleasant world. I liked how you explained it your May 16 comments in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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