Who Owns the Words That Come Out of Your Mouth? (Ep. 110)

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(Photo: Keith Hall)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Who Owns the Words That Come Out of Your Mouth?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript here; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The episode is about (heart, be still!) copyright law.

The episode begins with a conversation between Stephen Dubner and Barry Singer, the proprietor of Chartwell Booksellers in New York City. Chartwell is the world’s only Winston Churchill bookshop. (It’s also the name of Churchill’s estate in Kent.) Singer is an author, too, and he has recently published a book called Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill. The book details the well-appointed life that Britain’s most storied Prime Minister was known for: expensive cigars, Pol Roger champagne, crested slippers, custom jumpsuits from Turnbull & Asser — black for evening wear; gray pinstripe for day.

What’s not so well-known about Churchill is the tenacity of his estate when it comes to protecting his copyright. If you want to write a book about Churchill and quote him, or just about any member of his family, in fact, you have to pay – a pretty pound sterling. According to Singer:

SINGER: I used 3,872 words of Winston Churchill’s in the book. And that cost me £950, which is roughly 40 cents a word. 

Now, stringent copyright protection is by no means unique to the Churchill estate. In this episode of Freakonomics Radio, we learn why British laws are as they are, and what’s being done to change things. Rohan Silva, senior policy adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, tells us that Britain’s archaic and arcane copyright law has had far-reaching consequences:

SILVA: Our view is that, unless we reform the intellectual property system in the U.K., we’re really going to be at a disadvantage in the digital age. One of the prompts for doing this work on intellectual property actually came from the founders of Google. We were having a coffee a few years ago with Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and they said to us that their lawyers happened to be looking at the intellectual property regime in the U.K., and they thought that they actually couldn’t have started Google in the U.K. 

You’ll also hear Steve Levitt’s surprisingly un-economic take on copyright law, and his estimation of the value of the words that come out of his mouth.


cool, I'm going to england and start reading aloud the dictionary. cant wait for the money to start rolling in