Monday, November 25, 2002


Geraldine informed her listeners today that Mickey Mouse turns 74 this month. His debut was in a cartoon entitled "Steamboat Willie" on November 18 1928.

This means that next year he turns 75 and the Disney Corporation will no longer own the copyright for his distinctive image. Or it wouldn't have had it not been successful in persuading California congressman Sony Bono to introduce the Copyright Term Extension Act which blows the term out to 95 years. Mickey will now not be forced to leave home until he is 95 in 2003. The same for Donald who was due to enter the public domain in 2009. Disney will now continue to own his image until the year 2029. Bono and other legislators had support ass they drew up the Bill. Disney is reported to have spent $US 6.3 million in campaign donations in the leading up to the Act's proclamation.

Of course it affects everything. Documents and artistic works from the war which were about to become publicly available now won't for another 20 years. Unless of course Disney gets the copyright term extended again. And there's every reason to believe that it will. Sony Bono's widow Mary who now has his seat in Congress has foreshadowed extending the term of copyright again and again until it lasts "forever less one day".

Disney which itself has plundered the public domain for material (Cinderella Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, The Jungle Book" etc) appears to want to make sure that it never has to give back to it...

To paraphrase Paul Keating (about tax) people who drink from the well should not complain about attempts to fill it."

And so there's a legal challenge before the US Supreme Court right now.

The US constitution says the Congress shall have 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."

The challenge asks how extending a term of copyright protection for a work already created can promote the progress of science and useful arts.

And anyway 95 years of exclusive rights seems a bit longer than is necessary to encourage people to draw cartoons. The US term of copyright used to be fourteen years. It's been extended eleven times since then, many of the extensions just as Mickey Mouse was about to enter the public domain. But Disney has continued to draw cartoons every step along the way.

Drug companies get by with patents of 14-15 years - and Australia's own Productivity Commission thinks that's too much.

Personally I am not sure copyright "protection" is needed at all. The internet (and blog sites) demonstrate that people are willing to create art and contribute ideas without the need for payment.

Elton John is unlikely to stop writing music just because he isn't given about 100 years in which to exclusively profit from it. It think one year would do him.

My Dad told me that many true inventors refused to have their inventions patented, believing that they belonged to the people.

Okay so my view is extreme and utopian. But what about the view attributed to the American Association of Publishers about Libraries. Libraries allow people to read books for free and so are apparently similar to "terrorist organisations" opposed to the basic principles of the US system.

My eldest daughter admires Walt Disney. She would like to emulate him. If the challenge to the Son Bono Act fails she is unlikely to ever be able to do so. The term of copyright will be extended and extended again way beyond the human lifespan leaving virtually nothing in the public domain to comment on or improve upon without falling foul of a lawsuit.

UPDATE January 17 2003 The constitutional challenge failed. Details here.

Any complaints?

I am not a real blogger. I talk on the radio Monday mornings and (these days) take forever to blog what I have just said. When I started bogging I would go straight into the studio next door to Geraldine's and blog what I had meant to say within minutes of not quite saying it. Recently I have waited up to a week.

So here goes, to catch up.

LAST Monday 18 November I spoke with Geraldine about what happens when you try to complain.

When you see a fire and you report it, you expect the Fire Brigade to investigate. But that wouldn't be a wise expectation when you report something to the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, the Australian Securities and
Investments Commission
, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, or the Australian Tax Office.

The Palmer Report into APRA's conduct in the lead up to the collapse of HIH Insurance discloses an amazing mindset. "A company could not be considered to be in breach of the solvency standard until it had reported a breach in its returns." When HIH did fall below minimum solvency standards "no action was taken but to hope that it traded out of it." When in July 2000 APRA received an anonymous document that was a "road map" to HIH's troubles it warned its likely author that he was leaving himself open to legal action. HIH supervisors concluded that the comments should be treated with caution because they came from a disgruntled employee. Palmer appears to have been astounded.

APRA's attitude was partly cultural, the "London tea and bickies" approach in the words of APRA Board member Alan Cameron, and partly caused by very limited resources, according to Palmer. Only four people were supervising HIH and more than one-hundred other similar institutions, the man initially given hands-on responsibility for HIH was 24-years old with no general insurance experience.

So what?

Firstly APRA and its predecessor the Insurance and Superannuation Commission liked to give the impression that they were keeping our money safe. Some of us may have taken out insurance or extra supervision because we believed that they did.

And secondly APRA is not alone in, shall we say, a "selective" approach to complaints...

I quoted from annual reports that reveal that ASIC routinely investigates 2 to 3 per cent of the seven to eight thousand complaints it receives each year. It makes some contact with the complained about party in fifty per cent of the cases, and forty per cent of the complaints are merely "analysed, assessed and recorded."

Its lack of checking extends to prospectuses. Last year it inspected only 237 of the 913 prospectuses lodged with it. Not that the prospectuses lodged with it are squeaky clean. It had to issue stop orders for 67 of the 237 prospectuses it did examine.

The ACCC received 51,000 complaints last year. It investigated just 4,000 of them.

The copper isn't routinely on the beat.

The Tax Office copper no longer reveals in its annual reports the number of returns it selects for auditing.

The last time it did, in 1996 the number was -- 5,121.

Which isn't very many, in a nation the size of Australia.

Not that our tax returns are squeaky clean. No matter how many returns the Tax Office audits it seems the proportion that need correcting is about 70 per cent.

The last Budget gave the Tax Office an extra one billion dollars to start auditing again and the accounting profession is having kittens. They had grown so used to getting away with mistakes they'd forgotten that the act has grown just about too complex to apply, or so argues tax lawyer Michael Inglis in this and other brilliant pieces.

The Tax Office and its brethren bodies defend what they are doing by talking about "meta risk management". It is quite an interesting idea, but a bit like fighting the Taliban with technology and no troops or intelligence gatherers on the ground. And we know where that leads.

Wednesday, November 13, 2002


It may be as important to us as happiness.

After talking about happiness on Life Matters earlier this year, this week I returned to the subject and asked in the phrase made famous by Peggy Lee: is that all there is?

Our other big need appears to be meaning in what we do. We get it by having an identity and being true to that identity, or at least that is the persuasive argument made by two academics from the University of Connecticut.

Often the identity comes from religion. How else to explain the actions of people who don't eat or drink anything from dusk to dawn during Ramadan, or of people who don't eat pork without ever having tasted it, or of suicide bombers.

"They only do it in the pursuit of happiness" is an unsatisfying explanation. A better explanation is that most of the time people do such things in pursuit of meaning.

This means that changes in prices are likely to have very little effect on certain sorts of behaviours. I haven't eaten meat since I was 15 or 16 years old. A cut in the price of meat is unlikely to tempt me. A cut in the price of alternative leisure activities is unlikely to tempt a would-be suicide bomber.

And there are more issues raised in the paper. Traditional microeconomic analysis assumes that all our tastes are pretty much the same. (So much for classical economics celebrating the individual) Our behaviour is determined by our income and by relative prices.

The new approach recognises that different people have different tastes, and create different tastes as part of creating an identity. It means that behaviour is determined not only by changes in income and relative prices but also by who we are and who we have decided to be.

If taken on board it'd make economic modelling much more complicated (perhaps unnecessarily so).

But how else can we take seriously the actions of someone who won't eat or even drink water from dawn to dusk?

Worth a read.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Unpalatable as it is, we need a bond market

I spoke about the threatened demise of the Bond Market on Life Matters on Monday, which is where you will find several good references.

I am philosophically inclined to agree with Alex Erskine who refers to bond traders as "basket weavers and candlestick makers" who almost deserve the same fate as they've been prescribing for others workers made redundant by the progress of technology and new work practices.

If they weren't so arrogant (arrogant as a bunch - a few individuals in the bond market are humble) it'd be easier to feel sorry for them.

BUT the more I thought about this preparing for Life Matters the more I realised that, unpalatable as it is, we need a bond market.

And more. We need, yes we really need, the government to invest for the sake of it, and to borrow to raise the money.

Nicholas Gruen of Lateral Economics makes the point in a paper not on the net, although a dot-point version of it is.

He says for the Australian Government, as for any organisation, there is an optimal level of debt and an optimal level of funds invested. These should be decided quite separately from the question of whether or not the government should own a phone company.

Given the government's long-term investment horizon it makes sense to borrow at around 5 per cent and invest for an average return over the longer term of 10 per cent. Who wouldn't?

More importantly: there can be big benefits to the wider economy from the government doing so.

Buy buying Australian stocks when they are cheap and selling when they look pricey (an sensible practice) the government can deepen and smooth out volatility in the Australian stock market.

This is what the Reserve Bank of Australia does in the Australian Foreign Exchange market.

To the extent that the arms-length government investor put funds into the Australian stock market it would also would be helping to raise equity prices closer to their true value, reducing the debt-equity premium.

Everyone wins? That's how it looks.

I can see no good reason why the government should deny itself the right to invest and deny itself the right to raise funds. Indeed, it seems to me that the business of government is too important to deny it these rights.

What if a real crisis arises and the government suddenly needs to borrow - without a bond market it would find it hard. Australian might well regret the boldness of the brash Australian Treasurer who paid off his debts.

Update: Nicholas Gruen's paper IS on the web - here.