Wednesday, November 02, 2011

How to reform copyright

Lewis Hyde in the Chronicle of Higher Ed has some interesting observations and proposals for reforming copyright:
Focusing on the benefits of an initial registration requirement tells only one part of the story. Whenever copyright offers a second term, the renewal formality has even stronger commons-enhancing effects. After all, the commercial value of most creative work is exhausted fairly early. A study done of copyrights registered in 1934 found, for example, that half of them were worthless after 10 years, 90 percent after 43 years, and 99 percent after 65 years. It should consequently come as no surprise that many rights holders did not renew after the initial 28-year term. The numbers vary year to year and by genre (music rights being renewed more often than books, for example), but roughly speaking, for most of the 20th century, when owners were given a right to renew, only 15 percent chose to do so. As with initial registration, a renewal formality serves as a filter, releasing commercially dead work to the public without depriving authors of a longer term if they wish to have it. Put another way, formalities effectively shortened the term of the copyright grant during most of the last century; 85 percent of copyrights lasted only 28 years.
and this,
The last time that Congress added years to the term of copyright, a group of economists, both liberal and conservative (including five Nobel laureates), filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the extension made no economic sense. (Milton Friedman supposedly asked that the brief contain the phrase "no brainer.") It is patently clear to almost everyone that the term of copyright is now senselessly long. At the same time, it is almost certainly politically impossible to retreat from it; the few who benefit are too well connected, and the many who do not are too thinly spread. To my mind, the greatest appeal of new-style formalities, then, is that they would leave the nominal term untouched (and accord it to all who care) while greatly reducing the effective term. Sprigman calculates that during the 20th century, when the vast majority of rights holders did not avail themselves of the renewal option, the effective term of copyright was only 32 years. That's just four years longer than the nominal term the founders offered in 1790.

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