The European Union Extends Copyright in Design—and Critics Balk (Yet Again)

The European Union recently decided to support the productive labors of designers by extending legal protections of their works in all areas of copyright, design, and patent law. Just as past legislation in the United States extending copyright terms was attacked with histrionic allegations that this was merely rent-seeking behavior by politically powerful corporations, the EU’s extension of protections for designs have come under similar attack. In the US, the specter of Disney trying to keep “the Mouse” alive has become a stale trope trotted out in opposition to any sensible copyright protections. Thus, it is not a surprise that the same trope is being used to attack the EU’s new law. In both cases, the attack misses its target because it is rooted in a false assumption about why property rights are secured to innovators and creators.

First, a word about the change in European Union law. This law is important both in making creators’ rights more effective throughout the EU and in bringing those rights closer in harmony with EU intellectual property (IP) law as a whole. As of July 28, 2016, the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act extends the copyright for a designer’s work from 25 years to 70 years. (A six-month grace period in the UK has been granted to allow retailers to clear their stock of works that might be in question under the new Act.)

According to David Woods, a British lawyer, the EU’s changes aligned its copyright laws with those governing literature and music, providing uniform legal protections for all products of creative labors. Further, as Mr. Woods properly points out, “[t]he intent of the change to the legislation is to stop ‘exact’ copies of existing industrially designed artistic works”—a measure that he predicts will result in the closure of websites producing bargain basement, mass-produced copies of furniture, “as after all, this was their business model.” In sum, the legislation is directly aimed at illegal internet operations whose deliberate “business model” is to steal the fruits of the labors of those working in the design industries.

This copyright legislation secures to creators their highly-valued furniture design and thwarts piracy. As in the protection of all property rights, this spurs creativity and sustains livelihoods of professional creators. This is an example of how securing property rights of all types is a key requirement in a growing innovation economy and flourishing society.

Who could object to this? Surprisingly, some ersatz advocates for property rights, such as some libertarian academics like Alex Tabarrok. Tabarrok recently attacked the new EU design law with the tread-worn criticism that one hears from ideologically committed IP skeptics: “The point” of the revamped EU regulations, he declares, is “not to spur creativity but to protect the rents of a handful of people whose past designs turned out to have lasting value.” (One can hear the echoes of the rhetorically appealing, but false, claim that Disney was solely responsible for capturing Congress in keeping Mickey Mouse under legal wraps.)

In the abstract and without regard to recognizing how property rights function in the free market, Tabarrok’s criticism might seem plausible. But there’s a key mistake in it. The fallacy over which Tabarrok stumbles is assuming that the sole purpose of copyright is only to spur the creation of new works—no more, no less. According to Tabarrok, copyright is merely a carrot dangled in front of creators, who like Pavlov’s dog are supposed to be sparked into creative activity. Certainly, this is a function of IP rights, as it is with all property rights—promising to secure the fruits of productive labors, whether in a farm, books, or inventions, spurs people to create more of these valued assets.

But, like all property rights, copyright is not merely an incentive to create. All property rights serve the central function of securing to their owners the free use and disposition of the property, which is what leads to contracts and other exchanges in the free market that enhance everyone’s lives. Thus, copyright is vital to sustaining creators’ rights in reaping the rewards of their creative and valuable labors—when the works are disseminated in the market and purchased by consumers for their enjoyment and use.

Ironically, Tabarrok hints at this when he says, in what is meant to derogate copyright extension, that “the actual argument for copyright runs—We have lots of popular designs and we need to keep selling them at a high price.” Indeed, the argument for copyright as such could be restated in the same way: “we have lots of popular designs and we should be allowed to sell them at the price they command in the market,” irrespective of whether that price seems “high.”

Tabarrok looks to support his argument with the example of mid-century design classics, such as Charles Eames chairs and Arco lamps. These works have become familiar to the public through the sale of replicas sold by furniture retailers, such as Design Within Reach in the US and Swivel in the UK. Another classic example is the Barcelona chair, an exquisite and iconic work designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. While the officially licensed version of the Barcelona chair sells at the Conran Shop in the UK for around £5,755, a replica can be found on websites such as Swivel for around £455.

The stark difference in price illustrates vividly why high-level furniture and “lifestyle” designers such as Sir Terence Conran, and fashion designers such as Stella McCartney, support the new EU law: their professional livelihood—their ability to benefit from specialization and division of labor, which Adam Smith taught us is the key to a flourishing free market—rests on their ability to profit from the fruits of their creative labors in a commercial economy. Their right to sell their designs at the prices they seek in the marketplace does not preclude the design and dissemination of new, original articles of design that are inspired by the inimitable works of the mid-century moderns referenced by Tabarrok. But their property rights should preclude the sale of pirated knock-offs, which bring nothing to the table in terms of originality, inspiration, or hard work and are simply cheap copies.

It is not surprising that Tabarrok and others of his ilk continue to resort to ill-founded and unsubstantiated attacks upon IP rights on the dubious grounds that at some point these rights do not directly encourage innovation. This is highly misleading, because the same can be said about all property rights. This rhetorical move also makes it seem like Tabarrok is on the “pro” side of creation and innovation, which is dissembling rhetoric at its best.

Tabarrok’s critique, however, rests on a misconceived view of the function of property rights as solely incentivizing creation. Patents and copyrights are property rights, and like all property rights, they do not merely incentivize creation and innovation. They serve the important function of enabling creators to earn a livelihood from their productive labors by securing to them the same rights of all property owners to control the conditions in which their property is sold in the marketplace. This reflects the longstanding economic principle that a growing free market and flourishing society requires securing to property owners the fruits of their labors – surely a central tenet of libertarianism!