Why Patents and Copyrights Matter: A Conversation with Adam Mossoff

Would you walk into a store, grab a bottle of wine, and walk out without paying for it? No, that would be stealing. It’s morally wrong, and few would even consider doing it. But many people routinely download or stream pirated content — movies, TV shows — without giving it a second thought. They do not think of these two cases, stealing a bottle of wine and violating a movie copyright, as equivalent morally.

This attitude is compounded by a growing hostility to copyrights and patents. For years some intellectuals and politicians have been calling for drastically scaling back the protections for these forms of intellectual property. And they’ve made inroads. The U.S. patent system once led “the world in securing stable and effective property rights in cutting-edge innovation,” innovation that has supercharged our standard of living in myriad ways. That system was widely seen as the “gold standard.” But no longer.

Why do patents and copyrights matter? What do they protect? What to make of the objections against them? For instance: that no one is really hurt by violations of copyrights or patents; or that these rights are obstacles to progress and innovation; or that they’re an unfair, government-granted privilege or favor?

To explore these issues, I talked to Professor Adam Mossoff, who teaches law at George Mason University. Mossoff is an expert on intellectual property law and policy, who has published extensively in academic journals and popular outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Politico, among many others. He has testified several times before the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Mossoff is also a contributor to two recent books of essays on Ayn Rand’s philosophy: A Companion to Ayn Rand and Foundations of a Free Society: Reflections on Ayn Rand’s Political Philosophy. Rand was a principled advocate for individual rights, emphatically including rights to intellectual property, and one thread of my conversation with Mossoff relates to his interest in Rand’s ideas and their impact on his thinking.

Two points resonated strongly with me after the interview. First, I was alarmed to learn that protections for patents in the U.S. have diminished so much that some companies, particularly in biotech, have opted to shut down operations: why spend years and invest billions of dollars in R&D if a breakthrough innovation cannot be secured under patents? Second, it was refreshing to hear a justification for intellectual property rights grounded not on economic arguments, but on a moral case about an individual’s right to the product of his mind.

Watch the interview:

 

Photo by Dragos Gontariu on Unsplash

The War on Vaccines

Nearly twenty years ago, measles in the United States was declared “eliminated” — thanks to widespread vaccination. But measles has made a dangerous comeback. In the last year, several outbreaks occurred in Washington State and parts of New York, particularly in communities with low rates of vaccination. Such outbreaks reflect the influence of the anti-vaccine movement.

What animates this movement? What to make of its assertions about the dangers of vaccines? And what is the state of scientific knowledge about the efficacy and safety of vaccines? To explore these issues, I interviewed Dr. Amesh Adalja, a physician and expert on infectious diseases. Adalja is co-editor of the new book Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, and he has published in scientific journals as well as popular outlets such as The Atlantic, Forbes, and USA Today.

Two major takeaways from the conversation: First, the war on vaccines does not stem from a dispute over facts; rather, it reflects a wider cultural disdain for facts, truth, and reason. Second, the anti-vaccine movement is itself a significant danger. The more it succeeds, the more we can expect an increase in preventable infections and deaths.

Watch or listen to the interview:


Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Jacob Mchangama on Free Speech in Europe

In 2005, editors at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten were concerned about a seeming climate of self-censorship on the subject of Islam. To assess the extent of that climate, they commissioned and published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad. The ensuing political crisis and violent protests around the world — the so-called cartoons crisis — underscored that the principle of freedom of speech is little understood or valued. That fact was on stark display, again, in the aftermath of the 2015 jihadist massacre at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

These crises were part of a pattern dating back to the 1989 Iranian death decree against the British novelist Salman Rushdie. The dominant response of Western intellectuals and political leaders has been to betray the principle of freedom of speech at every turn. We at ARI have been fighting against this global trend by championing intellectual freedom and the freedom of speech.

Where do things stand in Europe today? That’s the question at the center of my recent conversation with Jacob Mchangama, a lawyer and writer based in Denmark. He’s a vocal advocate for freedom of speech, and I’ve found his support for that principle articulate. His work has been featured in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and several scholarly journals. During our conversation, we talked about:

  • the facts surrounding the cartoons crisis, and the intellectual climate today
  • the repeal of Denmark’s blasphemy law, and how, while in effect, it had enabled oppressive regimes to justify their own blasphemy laws
  • a recent notorious case at the European Court of Human Rights concerning an Austrian woman’s disparaging comments about Mohammad

From the interview I came away with a renewed appreciation for the First Amendment’s protection for intellectual freedom — but also with a heightened concern that free speech in America is, at best, taken for granted, and at worse, devalued.

The Dramatic Story of Making “The Fountainhead” Movie

The movie adaptation of The Fountainhead was first released in theaters in July 1949, and it featured two of the era’s biggest stars, Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. But the making of that film was itself a dramatic story.

It’s a story of “how Ayn Rand sold the screen rights to The Fountainhead — without selling out.” That’s how Shoshana Milgram, a scholar who has studied Rand’s life and writings in depth, has described it. To learn about the making-of story, I turned to Dr. Milgram, a professor at Virginia Tech, whose knowledge of Rand’s intellectual and literary development is truly encyclopedic.

During our conversation, Dr. Milgram shared a wealth of fascinating details about Rand’s role in adapting her novel to the screen. Warner Bros. Studios hired Rand to write the script. Although the scope of a two-hour movie required a considerable delimitation of the story, Rand was intent on ensuring that the film would convey some of the distinctive thematic aspects of the book.

During filming and then in editing, there were further challenges that Rand had to navigate gingerly. For example, there was the attempt to substantially alter the meaning of a climactic courtroom speech that Rand viewed as critical to the theme. (Rand wrote about that conflict in a previously unpublished letter, now available on ARI’s site.)

Finally, we also talked about Rand’s delimited purpose in selling the film rights and her evaluation of the finished product. Near the end, Dr. Milgram shares her own thoughts about the film and a 2017 Dutch-language stage adaptation of The Fountainhead by the director Ivo van Hove.

The interview assumes some knowledge of the basic plot of The Fountainhead novel — though we tried to fill in some context and avoid plot spoilers for those who’ve not yet read the book.

Remember DVDs? Along with the feature film, these sometimes included a short behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film. My interview with Dr. Milgram offers something like that kind of background for The Fountainhead adaptation.

A Conversation with Graeme Wood: What ISIS Really Wants

The Islamic State, or ISIS, was a grotesque enigma when it burst on the scene in 2014. After conquering vast tracts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS became notorious for beheadings and crucifixions, and for reinstating the practice of slavery. But to what end? What did ISIS really want? It soon became clear that our political and military leaders lacked anything like real understanding of the ISIS phenomenon.

Graeme Wood, a staff writer at The Atlantic, set out to answer a few simple, yet crucial questions: What is the Islamic State? Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The resulting article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” went viral. By one reckoning, it received more than a million pageviews the day it went online. It became one of the most-read digital articles of 2015, garnering nearly 100 million minutes of reading time.

Wood’s article was remarkable for debunking a common perception of ISIS as essentially a collection of psychopaths who had hijacked Islam for their own decidedly secular ends. His research led to a different conclusion: ISIS is in fact deeply Islamic. Its ends and means are bound up in sincerely held religious belief.

Building on that article, Wood wrote The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, and recently I caught up with him to discuss his writings on jihadists. We explored the findings of his research, some of the opposing views, or counter-arguments, regarding what’s essential to the Islamic State, and the unwillingness of some scholars to take seriously the religious character of ISIS. Among other topics, we touched on the issue of “Islamophobia” and how it impedes discussion of jihadist ideas (an issue that came up in the attempt to shut down a panel discussion on Islamism that Wood and I took part in at University of Rochester).

A key takeaway from this conversation is that our intellectual and political leaders vastly under-appreciate, if not ignore, the role of ideas in animating the jihadist phenomenon.

Why Economic Nationalism Is Un‑American

In the name of “economic nationalism,” the Trump administration has called for “fair trade” and has launched a “trade war” on Chinese goods, seeking to impose a variety of tariffs to “protect” selected American industries.

But Harry Binswanger argues that the seemingly patriotic goal of protecting American industries and encouraging people to “buy American” is in fact profoundly un-American. It is “un-American in its goal and in the coercive means employed to achieve it.”

Why? What animates “economic nationalism”? What approach is consistent with America’s founding ideals?

Listen to the podcast.