The Best of the Economist – June 2013

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The Economist explains: How does copyright work in space? Chris Hadfield has captured the world’s heart, judging by the 14m YouTube views of his free-fall rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, recorded on the International Space Station (ISS). The Canadian astronaut’s clear voice and capable guitar-playing were complemented by his facility in moving around in the microgravity of low-earth orbit. But when the man fell to Earth in a neat and safe descent a few days ago, after a five-month stay in orbit, should he have been greeted by copyright police? Commander Hadfield was only 250 miles (400 km) up, so he was still subject to terrestrial intellectual-property regimes, which would have applied even if he had flown the “100,000 miles” mentioned in the song’s lyrics, or millions of kilometres to Mars. His five-minute video had the potential to create a tangled web of intellectual-property issues. How does copyright work in space?

Zynga’s woes: The chips are down. Online poker is one of the many games offered by Zynga, a firm that was once the poster child of the social-gaming revolution. But anyone buying its shares today would be placing a very risky bet. On June 3rd Mark Pincus, the firm’s boss, announced it was firing over 500 people, or roughly 18% of its workforce, in a bid to turn itself around. The company is also expected to shutter offices that it had opened in New York and Los Angeles. So why is Mr Pincus swinging the axe? The answer is that Zynga built its business model around desktop-computer gaming, which was all the rage in the years after the firm was founded in 2007. In particular, Zynga flourished by leveraging Facebook’s applications platform to reach hordes of new users. But more and more social gaming is now taking place on fast-growing mobile platforms such as smartphones and tablet computers, where Zynga is far weaker.

The music industry: On-demand touringTalk about the music industry these days is fairly grim. More people may be listening to more music than ever before, but no one seems to know how to make money out of the business. So what can be done about it? This was the question before the entrepreneurs and developers who gathered recently at the SF MusicTech Summit, a twice-yearly event in San Francisco. Among this sea of optimistic entrepreneurs, developers, coders and flaks was Zoe Keating, a cellist and one of the few musicians to speak at the event. Her story is a hopeful one. Ms Keating has criticised streaming services for how little they pay in royalties; she reported on her blog that she averages $0.0033 per play on Spotify. Yet Ms Keating is not struggling to pay the mortgage on her Northern California home. She nets between $200,000 and $300,000 annually, largely through live performance.

Lifts and skyscrapers: The other mile-high club. When Elisha Otis stood on a platform at the 1854 World Fair in New York and ordered an axeman to cut the rope used to hoist him aloft, he changed cityscapes for ever. To the amazement of the crowd his new safety lift dropped only a few inches before being held by an automatic braking system. This gave people the confidence to use what Americans insist on calling elevators. That confidence allowed buildings to rise higher and higher. This week Kone, a Finnish liftmaker, announced that after a decade of development at its laboratory in Lohja, which sits above a 333-metre-deep mineshaft which the firm uses as a test bed, it has devised a system that should be able to raise an elevator a kilometre (3,300 feet) or more. This is twice as far as the things can go at present.

Superman v Spider-Man: Comic-book characters continue to conquer the box office. “Man of Steel”, the new Superman film, opens on June 14th in America and some other countries. In the film, Superman dons his cape and (spoiler alert!) saves the world single-handedly. Turning comics into films has produced superheroic profits. Since 1978, when the first Superman epic came to the big screen, DC Comics, which besides Superman has the rights to Batman, Catwoman and others, has seen its films gross nearly $8 billion worldwide.


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