ABELLO: Who really owns that beard?



Oscar Abello

You could tell immediately that it had been 58 days since last he brought a razor to his skin in preparation for the nightly and often self-deprecating monologue delivered from the sixth-floor Rockefeller Center studio that “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” calls home.

To onlookers in the studio and in millions of homes across America the look was truly historic.

The last time that face carried such hair may have been final exam week at Harvard University, anytime from 1981-85. Given the orator’s Irish background, even that is not very likely. Those whiskers had boldly gone where none had gone before.

History shall hardly remember the pioneering spirit of the beard. What we likely shall remember is that 58 days before, the Shakespeares of our time rolled up their scrolls, capped their inkwells and decided to show the world how mighty the pen truly is.

Late-night talk, including “Late Night,” shut down first.

A significant portion of Americans lost their top source of daily news, “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”

Weekly shows fell next, choosing either to cycle new shows bi-weekly or monthly in order to wait out the strike or to continue normally until out of new shows, leaving O’Brien’s beard to dominate the airwaves. He grew it in solidarity with the writers.

Together, the writers reduced the Golden Globes to no more than a press conference, which took place this past Sunday in lieu of the annual awards ceremony.

This year’s Academy Awards ceremony will likely meet the same fate. Movie production has started to lag as no new scripts arrive and old scripts cannot be revised.

The last writers’ strike occurred in 1988. Then, the Writers’ Guild of America sought royalties for materials released on VHS – then a market in its infancy.

Producers then argued that they were not so sure VHS would become a viable market, so they were reluctant to pay royalties for material on VHS.

The current strike finds writers seeking royalties for material released online and on DVD. The producers offer the same counter-argument they gave 20 years ago for VHS: neither market is viable enough to structure a profitable payment agreement for writers and producers.

At the heart of the royalties issue is a principle with which the technology-dominated world grapples on a daily basis: intellectual property rights.

The ownership of an idea might seem a curious institution to some, but there is no doubt that the concept itself was the foundation of the world, as we know it.

The world’s first patent law appeared in 1623 under King James I of England. The law specified that the English Parliament would grant patents; not until the reign of Queen Anne 80 years later, however, would the government require written descriptions to obtain a patent under the law.

Not long after that the Industrial Revolution began in England, thanks to the incentive provided by the foundation of modern intellectual property rights.

The creation of ideas has since fueled the process we now call economic development. Economists have won Nobel Prizes for describing how exactly that process occurs – largely by the gradual creation and then adoption of new ideas.

Sometimes the idea is a new machine, in which case a government usually grants a patent, giving the owner exclusive but sellable rights to make use of the idea. When the idea is a script, a government grants a copyright that is also exclusive but sellable. Royalties are a device by which many writers in America sell their ideas for a tiny percentage fee for every use or display of the material.

Millions of people around the world with Internet access now enjoy free online access to episodes of their favorite TV shows. The materials’ original creators are not currently compensated for the use of their ideas in such a medium.

Intellectual property rights have played a central role in economic development. Regardless of where you stand on the necessity of such an institution, you have likely benefited much from its existence.

Two-thirds of Americans support the writers, according to a Pepperdine University poll. Either Americans understand the role of intellectual property rights, or they just want Conan to shave his beard.


Oscar Abello is a senior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected]