Religion & Liberty Online

What David Bowie (and Giuseppe Verdi) Can Teach Us About Property Rights

bowie-verdeThe English music artist David Bowie died of cancer last night at the age of 69.

Because of his experimentation with fashion and musical styles, Bowie was considered by many to be one of the most innovative pop artists of his era. What is less well-known is that Bowie was also something of a financial innovator.

In the mid-1990s, Bowie and a pair of his financial advisers developed a plan to generate present-day cash from the future-day sales of his extensive back catalogue of music. In 1997 Bowie sold an asset-backed securities, dubbed “Bowie bonds”, which awarded investors a share in his future royalties for 10 years. As the BBC explains,

The securities, which were bought by US insurance giant Prudential Financial for $55m (£38m), committed Mr Bowie to repay his new creditors out of future income, and gave a fixed annual return of 7.9%.

He struck a deal with record label EMI which allowed him to package up and sell bonds on royalties for 25 albums released between 1969 and 1990 – which included classics such as The Man Who Sold The World, Ziggy Stardust, and Heroes, according to the Financial Times.

The securities were initially rated A3 rating by Moody’s Investors Service, the seventh-highest investment-grade rank. But in 2004 Moody’s downgraded Bowie bonds to only one level above “junk”, the lowest rating.

What was the reason the bonds were worth less than when they were issued? In a word: piracy. The advent of the Internet and “music-sharing” sites like Napster made it easier than ever to simply take whatever music was wanted without paying for it.

Bowie himself was well aware of how this change would affect property rights. In a 2002 interview with the New York Times, he said:

“The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.”

Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he added. ”So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.

Bowie’s prediction didn’t completely come true. Copyright still exists, after all. And while it can be difficult for a musician to make money from their intellectual property, streaming music services have gained popularity as a means of allowing people to have access to online music while ensuring artists get paid (though likely not as much as they would want).

But copyright alone no longer ensures that valuable intellectual property will be a valuable “asset.”

Some other artists—notably James Brown, Ashford & Simpson, and the Isley Brothers—attempted to follow Bowie’s model of “celebrity bonds.” But a bond offering in 2011 by Goldman Sachs that attempted to monetize the royalties of Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, among many other artists was canceled after lack of investor interest.

Even if they can’t make money from bonds, though, Dylan, Diamond, and the now late Bowie will still be able earn considerable streams of income from their easily-stolen intellectual property. The reason is the same as it was in previous eras before copyright protections were put in place. For example, the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi was able to profit from his work even at a time when intellectual property rights were not recognized in Italy.

Professor Stephen Davies uses Verdi’s Rigoletto to demonstrate that intellectual property rights were not needed in Verdi’s time. Is it possible, Davies wonders, that we don’t need them today either?

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).