Excuse me while I borrow liberally

5th May, 2006

FT Comment – 5 May

Plagiarism is in vogue, but is it efficient? William Swanson, chief executive of Raytheon, has been censured by his own board after his free booklet, Unwritten Rules of Management, turned out to overlap with W.J. King’s 1944 work, The Unwritten Rules of Engineering. Kaavya Viswanathan, the young chick-lit sensation studying at Harvard, has made the headlines because her novel has been alleged to plagiarise not one but five other novelists. Her publishers, Little, Brown (who also publish my book), have withdrawn the novel. Alas for the plagiarisers: they are being punished for victimless crimes.

Far more sensible, at least to an economist, is the treatment of the novelist Dan Brown. Mr Brown is not a plagiariser, merely a judicious borrower. His novel, The Da Vinci Code, owes an intellectual debt to an earlier work of non-fiction, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. But in a famous ruling last month, a British judge, Mr Justice Smith, ruled that this was the only thing Mr Brown owed, because The Da Vinci Code did not infringe copyright.

Intellectual property protection is a high-wire act. If ideas are protected too aggressively by the law, they will not be widely used. But if ideas are not protected at all, then who would waste effort creating them, knowing that their rewards would be stolen? All debates about protecting ideas should keep this balance in mind. Most do not.

Whatever the legal and moral merits of the judge’s decision, it made perfect sense economically. By acknowledging Mr Brown’s right to draw inspiration from other sources, the ruling smoothed the way for the release of a film based on The Da Vinci Code – a film that is likely to bring pleasure to millions, if not to the critics. The Da Vinci Code itself has sold nearly 40m copies and so, presumably, has made the world a better place…

Continued at ft.com.

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