Cartoon: Copyright, The Biggest Government Giveaway of All (featuring Bill Gates)

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!

If you like these cartoons, help me make more by supporting my Patreon! A $1 or $2 pledge really matters.


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!


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.

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11 Responses to Cartoon: Copyright, The Biggest Government Giveaway of All (featuring Bill Gates)

  1. 1
    ACE says:

    I know that you see “Copyright” on Windows and Word, but the real protection is under “trade secret” law.

    If there was no copyright at all on Windows past XP, you yourself could not work with the actual compiled (& obfuscated) code, and you would have to activate a copy you stole from someone else. The people who get around that do so whether there is a copyright or not, and a copy or two can be stolen right now in terms of activation before Microsoft puts the clamp down. I don’t know if there would be any difference at all in this case if copyright laws didn’t exist. The lawyers just cover their butts by applying any and all forms of intellectual property protection.

    Personally, I don’t think that copyright protection should be as long as it is either, but you are just way off on software issues. Where it is an issue is on books or art or the like that was a big hit, and the copyright only serves to enrich the heirs of the original artist.

  2. 2
    ACE says:

    One more note:

    Pharmaceutical drugs and associated production methods are protected by patent, not copyright. This is significant because the patent term (currently 20 years from non-provisional US filing date) is much shorter than a copyright term.

    Patents on pharmaceutical drugs can take many years to completion, approval issues are usually the biggest problem with pharmaceutical stuff. A patent only gives you the right to exclude others from importing, using, selling the products etc. It does not prevent regulation, and a government could cap prices or take any other regulation measures. Many European countries set the prices of prescription drugs, and there are similar EU / individual country / PCT-related patents there.

    The patent term is not the problem with regard to pharma prices.

  3. 3
    RonF says:

    Copyright, trade secret and patent law encourage innovation by ensuring that an innovator can profit off of their work for a period of time. Given that Walt Disney did get rich off of Mickey Mouse and is long dead it’s ridiculous that Disney can own Mickey for 75 years – and what are they doing to do when it runs out – try to get ANOTHER extension?

    What do you think IS a reasonable time for an innovator to own the exclusive right to profit from their work?

  4. 4
    Gracchus says:

    I think it’s pretty clear he thinks 5 years is reasonable

  5. 5
    hf says:

    ACE, are you saying the technological barriers would be illegal without trade secret law? I’m confused about what difference this second category of laws makes. (Also I’m ruffled by the word “stolen”, which would be legally false for many people without copyright law. Even publicizing ways to get hold of a “trade secret” and use it for non-commercial purposes might be perfectly legal.) Then there’s trademark law, a third category to consider (though Lindows didn’t do too badly there).

    As for the way Bill Gates actually became wealthy, that started with copyright law, together with outright lying and also contract law (apparently a fourth category).

  6. 6
    RonF says:

    Five years, or the creator’s lifetime + five years? It’s one thing for a creator who’s made $25 million in 5 years to have his or her creation enter the public domain, but I should think it’s different for someone who is only getting a modest income from it.

  7. 7
    Gracchus says:

    Again I think it is pretty clear Amp means five years, not creator’s lifetime + five years. Bill Gates is still alive after all.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    The cartoon uses five years because that let me swipe Dean Baker’s estimate of how much money Gates would have if it were only five years.

    But I think what was envisioned by the Copyright Act of 1790 – copyright with term of 14 years, plus a 14-year renewal for creators who apply for it – would also be reasonable, for most creations.

  9. 9
    Al Kratzer says:

    Which creations do you feel might warrant longer than 28 years of protection? Should the heirs of Charles Shultz have to stand by and watch while Snoopy is used as a corporate mascot by every company with a whim to do so? Should a band like the Rolling Stones no longer get even the pitiful royalty rates they get from steaming services for the playing of “Satisfaction” because they have been together for longer than 28 years?
    Should Art Spiegelman have to endure the use of his Maus characters and premise by Neo-Nazi cartoonists with no legal recourse because it has now been 29 years since he published the book?

  10. 10
    Ampersand says:

    I’m curious – do you usually take the view that if speech is emotionally hurtful, it should be legally forbidden? Or is that only the case for copyright?

    I think the Nazis should have a free speech right to march through Skokie, even though that will be a very painful experience for the Jews there. I think it’s a bad thing, but I don’t think we should send in the law to stop Nazis from speaking.

    Do you agree with me about that?

    If you do, then you must logically agree that “it will be very painful for party A if party B is legally allowed to speak” isn’t a killer argument against free speech.

    Incidentally, even under the status quo, any Nazi comic book featuring Maus characters would almost certainly be a parody and therefore legal. And Charles Schulz, when alive, was obviously very comfortable having corporations use his characters in ads, so I don’t see why his heirs should be against it. And I think Mick Jagger will somehow manage to keep himself fed and housed even without further “Satisfaction” royalties.

    I don’t want Schulz’s heirs to suffer, or Art Spiegelman to suffer, just like I don’t want Jews to have to be reminded of atrocities by marching Nazis.

    But free speech isn’t about preventing people from being hurt, and I suspect you could see that if we weren’t discussing copyright. We’ve decided, as a society, that free speech is so valuable and important that we’re willing to put up with horrible people publicly saying things the rest of us find painful to hear.

    Unless we’re talking about Mickey Mouse, that is, in which case all our free speech principles fly out the window.

    Let’s talk about another sort of pain, and another comic book example: After Jack Kirby and Marvel parted ways, Kirby was no longer legally allowed to publish comics about Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, etc.. Because of copyright law. Wouldn’t it have been better if we didn’t have copyright law that’s able to legally separate a creator from the right to do stories about his own creations? Wouldn’t it have been great if Kirby hadn’t been stuck drawing Superman comics and having Curt Swan redraw all the Superman faces because DC didn’t want Superman looking like a Jack Kirby drawing?

  11. 11
    Mandolin says:

    Alternatively, the comics system might be super borked, and fixing the problems with it without considering the way a great many other creative industries work is probably going to bork them.

    I know comics sucks a lot, but structuring industries that aren’t dominated by corporate ownership as if they are is really damaging. Whenever we have this argument, you eventually back into talking about how comics artists are screwed which is the same thing you did above. But that’s not the atmosphere across the board for creative industries and I don’t want to just swap which groups of people get fucked over. (Though it makes sense that your interest would primarily be in unfucking over people local to your interests.)

    “Jews” and Art Spiegelman are different because one is a person. I think you can still make your case with e.g. horrible treatments of Treyvor Martin or Matt Shepherd, but going between nebulous and specific muddies the issue.

    Not everyone agrees it should be okay to put Treyvor martins face on gun range targets. It’s legal, but you can’t assume a random person will think it should be the way you seem to be assuming free speech protections are de rigeur and not contested. I don’t think this is fatal to your argument either, but I think you should consider altering your assumed baseline which is clearer imo when you liken specific to specific instead Of likening specific to an abstract group.