Five Best Wednesday Columns

Copyright in the film industry, Christie's decision, and Prohibition in the modern era.

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Peter Decherney on copyright's harm to the film industry In 1994, Congress expanded the copyrights of foreign-made works that had previously been in the public domain. Artists now require permission to draw on works from Prokofiev's "Peter and  the Wolf" to Picasso's "Guernica." "In my own field -- film -- the effects of the 1994 law have been palpable," writes University of Pennsylvania film professor Peter Decherney in The New York Times. Distributors lost portions of their libraries, consumers can't find many works, and filmmakers can't adapt literature and music once available to anyone. "The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments today in Golan v. Holder, a case challenging the copyright provision of the 1994 act," and they should decide against upholding the copyrights, Decherney argues. "For Hollywood and every other American cultural industry, access to a stable and growing public domain has been essential to innovation." Some in Hollywood disagree. The MPAA advocates strict enforcement of copyright throughout the world and believes this extension of it is good for the industry. Yet they are ignoring a long history of public domain works fueling innovation, Decherney says. Walt Disney used the Brothers' Grimm's Snow White for his first feature-length animated film because the story would be familiar to audiences even if the form would not. Alice in Wonderland has been remade over and over to adapt to new technologies, most recently in a 3-D version by Tim Burton. But today, "Technical, artistic and industrial innovation are at risk."

Michael McConnell on ministers and equal employment When Cheryl Perich, a teacher and religious leader at a Lutheran school in Michigan had a dispute with her employer about returning to work after illness, the school revoked her "call" to the ministry, and "she sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act," writes Michael McConnell in The Wall Street Journal. The law does not explicitly exempt church employers, but lower courts have long used a "ministerial exception" judging it to be in line with the separation of church and state. Now the Supreme Court is set to judge on how courts can distinguish who counts as a "minister" when an employee takes on both spiritual and administrative duties, as Perich did. The Obama Justice Dept. wants to throw out the ministerial exception entirely. "But the government, including the judiciary, is not entitled under the First Amendment to decide what qualifications a minister should have," McConnell argues. This would put the government in a position to judge whether the Catholic Church has the right to limit the priesthood to men, for instance. "Every discrimination claim about the hiring of ministers necessarily comes down to the question of whether the church had a bona fide religious reason for its decision. That places the courts squarely in the business of adjudicating the validity of a church's claims about its own religious practice." The Justice Dept. acknowledges there could be exception for someone who performs exclusively religious duties, but this would be moot, as even the pope has the occasional administrative task. "Perhaps American churches should be more open to female clergy and more accommodating toward elderly pastors or disabled chaplains. But if the separation between church and state means anything, such changes must come from within," McConnell writes.

Thant Myint-U on Myanmar's reform Myanmar is undergoing the most hopeful changes in the 50 years since army rule was established, and the United States can make a big difference in supporting the democratic transition there, writes historian Thant Myint-U in The New York Times. Six months ago, Myanmar's autocratic leader retired, but elections were criticized for being less than free and his junta was mostly replaced with the same army leaders. But U Thein Sein, the new president, has surprisingly urged reforms to fight poverty and corruption. "By June, state pensions for nearly a million people, most of them very poor, were increased by as much as a thousandfold, taxes were reduced, and trade cartels were dismantled. The government redrafted banking and foreign investment rules and began revising its foreign exchange rate policy -- all of this in consultation with businessmen and academics." Leaders have allowed the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to attend the Martyrs' Day ceremony and they have allowed a newly created press to mention her name in print. Challenges remain, including small armed conflicts with ethnic minority groups. Hard-liners also continue to oppose reform. Thus, Obama's administration needs to vocally support the current reforms without pushing too quickly for more. Second, it needs to provide reformists with advice by lifting restrictions that limit the U.N. and World Bank from helping. And third, it must end trade embargoes.

Dana Milbank on Christie's 'shocking' decision The political world was shocked to hear that Chris Christie wouldn't run for president. "The New Jersey governor dropped so many hints about joining the race for the Republican nomination," writes Dana Milbank in The Washington Post. "Such as this one from last year: 'Short of suicide, I don't really know what I'd have to do to convince you people that I'm not running. I'm not running!'" "The incorrigible flirt!" Milbank jokes. Despite this and many similar disavowals, the press and establishment Republicans continued to "puff up the Christie candidacy." While Christie only looks better after this "national period of ego-stroking," Republicans and journalists who seriously "peddled" the story do not. Republicans have only reemphasized their own dislike for the current field of candidates. Reporters, meanwhile, "look gullible." Many reported in the last week that he was thinking seriously about running, even when people like his brother disavowed them. Others, meanwhile, occupied themselves by making fat jokes about the governor. While all this allowed Christie to display his best assets -- "acting normal and talking plain" -- it also revealed why he might not have won. He was undisciplined in answering press questions for almost an hour yesterday. And to the many who continued to toss questions at him, he said once again, "All you people showed up today and I get to have this press conference, but nothing's changed." Milbank jokes, "Will the man never stop dropping hints?"

Kevin Sabet on Prohibition and drug policy A Ken Burns special on Prohibition aired this week on PBS, bringing back the common argument by drug legalization advocates that the nation's failed experiment in banning liquor distribution supports their modern cause. "But a closer look at what resulted from alcohol prohibition and its relevance to today's anti-drug effort reveals a far more nuanced picture than the legalization lobby might like to admit," writes former Obama drug policy adviser Kevin Sabet in the Los Angeles Times. Prohibition had some benefits. Alcohol use declined, as did cirrhosis of the liver among men and arrests for public drunkenness. It strengthened the mob, but the mob was powerful before Prohibition and continued to be long afterward. "No one is suggesting that alcohol prohibition should be reinstated," he says, but nor should we believe the conventional narrative that it was a complete failure. Furthermore, there are differences between Prohibition and today's drug enforcement policy that make comparing the two "almost useless." Unlike illegal drugs, consumption of alcohol was never banned, just distribution and sale. Second, Congress, police, prosecutors, judges, and juries often refused to enforce Prohibition. Most importantly, alcohol, unlike many illegal drugs, had had a millennia-old history of ubiquitous and culturally accepted use in society. The first lesson we should take is that when a substance is legal, businesses have incentive to promote its use, and heavier use leads to heavier social costs. "We have little reason to believe the benefits of drug legalization would outweigh its costs." But then, nor do we need such severe enforcement of our drug policy. We should give people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction social benefits. We should revisit harsh mandatory minimums for possession, and we should expand treatment facilities.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.