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The Republican Party, Copyright Law and Free Markets

In the last couple of weeks, a paper written by Derek Khanna has gotten attention. In “Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix it,” he argues that the current system of copyright law is unsustainable, anti-free market and hinders innovation. Khanna is a staffer for the Republican Study Committee, which is considered the conservative conscience of the House GOP. While the paper was quickly removed from the RSC website after criticism by Republican leaders and lobbyists, it has reignited a fierce debate about the nature of the Republican Party and the free-market system. There are many ridiculous examples of the irrationality of copyright law, such as the fact that singing “Happy Birthday” in public is actually illegal due to the fact that it remains under copyright. Ridiculousness aside, there is a broader economic case to be made against the current state of copyright law. Khanna states in his paper:
…under the current system of copyright, producers of content are entitled to a guaranteed, government instituted, government subsidized content-monopoly. … excessive copyright protection leads to what economists call “rent-seeking” which is effectively non-productive behavior that sucks economic productive potential from the overall economy.
In most of the world, including the United States, a work of literature, music, film, etc., is under copyright for 70 years after the death of the author, at which point it becomes public domain. This reality thwarts innovation because it limits access to integral information. And as Gary Becker and Richard Posner point out, this also applies to patent law. Copyright and patents are very important to a free-market system; they protect new ideas and give greater incentive to innovators. But in our new technological age, excessive copyright and patent protection simultaneously stifles the very innovation it was meant to protect. As Alana Goodman argues in Commentary:
Reforming copyright law could give the public freer access to books, scientific papers, music and art decades earlier than they otherwise would have. It would encourage online libraries, where people could access literature and scientific research as it enters the public domain. It would make learning less costly. And it would support innovation by fostering a society where ideas are more accessible, and easier to build upon.
In the weeks since Mitt Romney’s loss, there has been much discussion of what went wrong. Some have pointed to Romney’s dismal showing among Hispanics or his 47% remark, which alienated a significant portion of the American electorate. But if Mitt Romney was to blame, one would think that Republican Senate candidates would outperform Romney, which they didn’t, as Ramesh Ponnuru pointed out. No, this was not a Romney problem; it was a Republican problem. The Republican Party is the party of the free market; it’s the party of individual liberty and the power of the American entrepreneurial spirit. As Jack Kemp once said, “There’s no limit to what free men and free women in a free market with free enterprise can accomplish when people are free to follow their dream.” Of late, however, this has changed. The Republican Party, in many cases, has ceased to be the party of entrepreneurship and small business. Instead, it has become the party of big business, big banks and American corporatism. The fact that Republican leaders removed Khanna’s paper reflects this sad fact. Of course, it’s important to note that while it may not make a good political bumper sticker, corporations are necessary for job creation and investment, and big banks are necessary for capital formation. These institutions are integral to a vibrant capitalist economic system. But they are not the driving force behind our free-market system. A fundamental tenet of the American experiment is that anyone who has a new idea should have the freedom and power to develop and market it. Whenever possible, we should provide the investment, time and resources necessary to develop new technologies that save lives, revolutionize industries and change the day to day lives of all Americans. That’s how Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs changed the world. Maintaining a rational balance between protecting innovation and opening the world to a free expression of ideas is just the sort of cause that the Republican Party should champion. Today’s Republican thought leaders ought not cower in the face of corporate opposition, but rather protect the right of individuals to use their God-given abilities to create the new technology, the new cure or the new artistic expression which will change the world yet again.