Two pieces of information I’ve received in the last 24 hours prompted me to open a discussion on Libertarianism and intellectual property rights. Firstly, the tragic death yesterday of Australian band Men At Work’s multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham, in his suburban Melbourne home at the age of 58. Responsible for the distinctive flute introduction to our unofficial national anthem Down Under (which by a strange coincidence I posted in the Juke Box only two days ago), and the saxophone hook for Overkill above, Ham’s life was wrecked by a plagiarism case two years ago.
It started on a 2009 episode of the music trivia show Spicks and Specks on ABC-TV, in which the question was asked, Which 1980s hit Aussie song featured a flute riff containing the tune from Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree? Answer: Down Under. Strangely, in nearly thirty years since it was released, no-one had ever noticed it; I know I didn’t. But that didn’t stop Larrakin Music, the publishing house that held the rights to Kookaburra, from seizing this new-found information and promptly suing Men at Work for a slice of the profits. Down Under was one of a string of hits from the 1981 album Business As Usual, which went to #1 in the USA and sold 15 million copies worldwide. Sadly, Larrakin won a judgement of 5% of all royalties backdated to 2002 (down from the 60% they were originally seeking, backdated to 1981).
The ruling shattered Ham, who wrote the song with guitarist Ron Strykert and Colin Hay; he is quoted as saying, “I’m terribly disappointed that that’s the way I’m going to be remembered—for copying something”. His life went downhill, his marriage broke up and he sought consolation in heroin and alcohol. Friends found his body yesterday in his home after failing to make contact for three days. Only a few weeks ago Scottish-born lead singer Colin Hay reflected on how ridiculous it all was:
Then this morning in the Mises Daily, there was this article by Doug French, From Innovation To Rent Seeking, which examines the effect of patent law has on stifling creativity, particularly in the high technology sector. Major companies which started out as innovators of new technology have often been reduced to collectors of patents, unwilling to develop most of them but ready to sue anybody else who does. Do go and have a read, and let me know your thoughts.
I’m swamped with work right now, and will be for the next week or so; so I’m unable to give you a detailed run-down on my own opinion. I do get frustrated when I try to share a YouTube clip with friends in Europe or North America, only to be told that it won’t load for them due to copyright zoning barriers, invariably put up by the major record labels. I would say that it’s likely that technology will inevitably overtake and cut out the middle-men, with less and less layers between producer and consumer. Online shopping is one manifestation of this, much to the chagrin of bricks-and-mortar retailers, who are increasingly discovering they must get online themselves, or watch their business shrink and die. But are we losing value by this, or gaining efficiency?
Over to you.
Update 15 June 2013: Courtesy of Catallaxy Files, here’s a British take on the issue: