Former World Bank chief economist and Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz, lecturing on the topic “Can Illiberal Democracies Create Shared and Sustained Prosperity?” at Central European University in Budapest, had quite a bit to say on copyright and intellectual property in the course of his address. Given that the subject of his latest co-authored book, as well as much of his lecture, is Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress, this may come as no surprise, but since Stiglitz is former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, he has had more of an insider’s view on U.S. intellectual property policy than most – which could help to explain why his comments on this were so very jaded.
Asked for his opinion of private ownership of academic journals, an immediate priority for the CEU audience, Stiglitz observed that “private publishers of journals are having very little value add,” continuing that “the established journals are entrenched and it’s very hard to move them from one equilibrium to another.” Alluding to the practice in the hard sciences of the researchers paying to have for publication from their research grants, he suggested one solution: to require any researcher on a grant to publish in a journal with a very low price. “If you do that, it would bring about the end of these monopolistic private journals. And I think that would be a good thing.”
Moving on to the issue of copyright, Stiglitz noted that he was involved at the Council of Economic Advisers in the negotiations that led to the formulation of “the current global economic regime,” particularly the 1994 Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). As he recalled, the U.S. academic community and the Council of Economic Advisers were both against the final version of TRIPS, which “was the result largely of the influence of two industries: the pharmaceutical industry and the entertainment industry.” To the question, “Why do we have a 70-year copyright?” Stigliz answered, “it was about one thing: Mickey Mouse. It was about Disney wanting to protect its intellectual property and corporate interest in Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck – that’s what it was about.” And he continued: “James Joyce scholars are very upset about their inability to get access to a lot of his work.”
Stiglitz is also concerned that the current U.S. proposed trade agreements with Europe and with Asia Pacific nations “are trying to make things even worse. They won’t say they’ll make things worse … If you’re worried about the way things are, if Europe signs this new trade agreement, it will make things worse.”
Stiglitz believes that “we ought to think about knowledge as a global public good,” and it’s not surprising that he sees infringements on its free flow as economically harmful. Maybe the defenders of long copyright terms and corporate media rights ought to be looking to recruit more Nobel Laureates as well as Washington lobbyists to their camp, since the intellectual arguments seem to be running so strongly against them.