4th January 2021

The value of public domain, ESG investment continues to boom

Welcome to Just Two Things, which I plan to write daily, five days a week, if I can manage it. Some links may also appear on my blog from time to time. It won’t usually be as long as this.

#1. Why public domain matters

Every year on 1st January, new works come into the public domain. In the US this year, works published in 1925 are out of copyright, including The Great Gatsby and Mrs Dalloway. (The UK rules, based on the date of the death of the creator, are a bit different, which means that all of George Orwell’s work is now out of copyright.) The US used to have a 28-year copyright period, extendable for 28 years. The current US 95-year period is the result of shameless and unevidenced lobbying by the American media industry sector. It’s not accident that the US Copyright Term Extension Act is also known as the ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’.

The reason the public domain matters is explained by Jennifer Jenkins of Duke University in a long post marking some of the works that have come into the public domain un the US this year. They include opening up our heritage as a source of inspiration; preserving material that might be lost (fans and scholars are better at this than copyright owners, who lose interest when royalties disappear); and as a stimulus to new work (you can now write the distaff version of Gatsby from the point of view of Daisy without wrangling with the Fitzgerald Estate). It’s A Wonderful Life became a Christmas classic because it fell out of copyright after 28 years. The cultural and economic value of shorter copyright periods is well known to be greater than the financial gains made by copyright holders from long copyright periods. Only 2% of copyrights aged between 55 and 75 years have commercial value; fewer after that.

#2: ESG has had a good year

ESG—corporate behaviour on complying with good environmental, social, and governance practice—had a good year in 2020, despite a general perspective that corporations under financial pressure would throw it out of the widow. That’s the view of Gillian Tett in the FT’s Moral Money newsletter. It’s behind a paywall, so here’s a quick summary.

  • The ESG boom is now being driven as much by risk management as activism: Covid-19 has shown company executives and financiers around the world the perils of ignoring so-called “externalities”.

  • The “externalities” around climate change will be increasingly on the agenda in 2021 due to the COP26 meeting, more instances of extreme weatherand polls that show society broadly cares about global warming. …

    Big money increasingly has a stake in promoting the ESG agenda, for its own benefit, and will lobby for this in 2021. Larry Fink, chief executive of BlackRock, recently told Moral Money that he viewed climate finance as the second big structural shift of his investing career. …

  • Transparency is rising in a manner that will make company boards and investment committees nervous about falling foul of ESG norms in 2021, particularly in the face of millennials who have used transparency to demand change… The shock of the #MeToo movement in 2019 and Black Lives Matter in 2020 has shaken executive attitudes.

  • Politics will back ESG momentum in 2021 too. In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has thrown his weight behind green reforms. The European Commission is pressing ahead with its green taxonomy and green stimulus plans. The incoming administration of Joe Biden has put climate policy at the centre of its staffing decisions, and is likely to push for rapid ESG investing reforms. China pledged to go carbon neutral and Japan has followed with its own promises.