Dean Baker
Artsy, November 21, 2017

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Somehow, some way, someone paid $450 million, after buyer’s fees, for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi at Christie’s last Wednesday. Believed to be the last work by the artist in private hands, the painting’s price smashed all previous records. Since the price also seemed more on par with the education budget of a medium-sized country, Artsy asked a range of leaders from the arts, economics, bioethics, and development to tell us how they’d spend $450 million.

I have to decide whether I would use this money to try to end drug patents or copyrights. Since it is too early in the morning for such a weighty decision, I will put both on the table.

To do in drug patents, I would put up the money for nine orphan drugs trials. These cost around $50 million each, according to recent estimates from James Love, the director of Knowledge Ecology International. I would put all the trial results on the web so that other researchers and doctors would have the full benefit of this information (this would be subject to restrictions preserving the privacy of patients—economists know how to do this). This means they would know whether the drug is more effective for women than men, whether other conditions (e.g. arthritis or heart disease) had an impact on its effectiveness, etc. As it stands now, the drug companies only disclose information that helps them market their drug, so this should be a powerful precedent of how good science could be done.

I would then place the successful drugs in the public domain so that they could be sold as generics from the day they approved. This would mean that instead of selling for $300,000 for a year’s treatment, the next cancer breakthrough drug (most new cancer drugs have orphan designations) can sell for $300. This will help to demonstrate the incredible corruption of our patent system in financing drugs. We have needlessly created a problem of drug affordability that would not exist with a more rational method of financing research.

On the copyright side, the point would be to show that there can be alternatives to copyright monopolies to financing creative work. My dream is a tax credit where each person would have some amount (e.g. $100 a year) to support the creative worker(s) of their choice. They could also give this money to an intermediary that supports creative work (e.g. an organization that supports blues musicians or writing mystery novels). The credit is modeled after the charitable contribution tax deduction, except it’s a credit. To get the money, creative workers or organizations have to register, like 501(c)3 do, just saying what it is they do. In this case a condition for getting money through the system is that a creative worker is ineligible for copyright protection for their work for a period time (e.g. 3 years) after getting the money.

With my $450 million, I would propose to try this at the city level, giving out $45 million a year for 10 years. The idea is that a city would run this with the requirement that recipients would have to physically be present at least eight months a year to be eligible to get the credit from the city’s taxpayers. This should turn the city into an artistic mecca, since musicians, playwrights, and other creative workers would want to make extra money, and also win more tax credits, by doing their work in the city.

I would take bids from different cities seeing how much they were willing to put up and how appropriate they might be to serve as a model. (Think of the bidding to be Amazon’s headquarters.) The result should be a large amount of new creative work that is available at zero cost over the web and a thriving city that took the leap.

It’s not every day that I get to play with $450 million.