This one was directly inspired by this Dean Baker essay.
The issue can be seen as a distinction between someone who wins a big pile of money in a lottery and someone who slips in a fake card to win the poker pot. If we recognize that patent and copyright monopolies are government policies, that could be completely restructured or even eliminated altogether, it destroys the idea that technology has been responsible for upward redistribution or even a major factor in upward redistribution.
If Bill Gates got very rich because of Windows and other Microsoft software, it was not because of the technology, but rather because the government gave him copyright and patent monopolies on this software.
In the U.S., the original copyright law gave creators a monopoly for fourteen years. Owning intellectual property isn’t a natural state; it’s something the law gives creators (of any sort), so they’ll have an incentive to keep on creating. As the U.S. Constitution says, the government has the power “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
That’s the rightful purpose of copyright – the public interest. But that purpose has been mostly forgotten in our current, ridiculous system, which often harms the public interest. Nowhere is that harm more extreme than in prescription drugs, in which copyright monopolies enable drug companies to charge ridiculous prices. (I really should do a cartoon about that.)
This cartoon was fun to draw. The biggest challenge, of course, was five panels in a row of drawing a cartoon of a real person. It’s easy to stiffen up when drawing real people, and to lose the cartoonyness because of trying too hard to be faithful to the real person’s features. Hopefully I avoided that here!
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TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON
This cartoon has five panels, plus a small “kicker” panel under the cartoon. All of the panels show the same setting: a sidewalk next to a grassy field with a couple of scattered trees.
A balding man is talking on his cell phone, ranting to a friend or perhaps calling in to talk radio. He’s wearing a short sleeved shirt with a “!” on front. Behind him, Bill Gates is walking up to him with a friendly expression, raising a forefinger in a “making a point” gesture.
MAN: I say, Bill Gates earned every dollar of his $108 billion! The government had nothing to do with it!
BILL GATES: Actually, that’s not true.
The man, turning around, jumps with surprise.
MAN: Gasp! Bill Gates!
GATES: I owe my fortune to the biggest government giveaway of all… Copyright law!
A close-up of Gates, smiling and explaining.
GATES: People talk about copyright for “lifetime plus seventy years” as if it’s a law of nature. It’ snot! It’s a law that big corps like Disney lobbied for!
A longer shot of Gates, spreading his hands as he talks.
GATES: If copyright only lasted five years, I might have to get by on “only” $25 million, and consumers would save a ton of money!
GATES: Plus, less monopoly would probably mean better products.
Gates walks away, looking upward and holding one hand out towards the sky in a “I am a visionary” sort of gesture. Behind him, the balm man is happily cheering.
GATES: Now, if you’ll excuse me, somewhere out there is a small company with a great product. I’ll buy them out and make sure no one sees that great product for seventy years!
GATES: Just another way consumers get screwed by… Copyright law!
MAN: Hooray! Thank you Bill Gates!
SMALL KICKER PANEL UNDER THE BOTTOM OF THE STRIP
Barry the cartoonist, looking mildly surprised, is talking to the bald man, who is smiling.
BARRY: Why are you cheering? Aren’t you against government interference with free markets?
MAN: Mainly I just worship rich people.