How to Fix Copyright, Part Three

In my last post I discussed issues involving the term of protection. I argued that there should be different terms of protection for different categories of works. If copyright law is predicated wholly or in substantial part on the need to provide incentives to create, then finding the right level of incentive is important given that different works have different levels of investment and different commercial lives. Giving all copyrighted works – from emails, lawyers’ cease-and-desist letters, software manuals, fashion magazines, maps, David Post’s Moose book, works of sculpture, and 200 million dollar movies — the same protection makes no sense if we accept the incentive rationale.

Some may misstake this as a call to weaken copyright, but as I noted in a comment on Part Deux, the term “weaken” is inappropriate here: copyright law is not a living organism, nor is it a building or other structure. The accusation of “weakening copyright” is simply a bad metaphor, used by those who support the status quo to resist basing copyright law on evidence. (“Looks like the upper hand is on the other foot”).

So what would an evidence-based approach to the term of protection look like? In Part Deux, I advocated using the approach taken by the economists in the Eldred case: figuring out what the present value/future value of an extension of term would be. This approach could also be applied to reductions in term: evidence whether any proposed reduction in term would take away meaningful amounts of present value would be important.

To date, the present value/future value approach has been applied at the macro level – to all types of works, and not as I also advocate, at the micro level for particular types of works. To do a better job at the micro level, we would need data on average commercial lives for classes of works. In the case of books, for example, Books in Print and other similar publications could be used. In 2002, Jason Schultz did a study of books still in print that were first published during the period of 1927–1946. He found that of the 187,280 books published during that period, only 2.3% were still available in 2002. Thus, the 1998 term extension kept under copyright 97.7 percent of books that were no longer in print, but which could nevertheless not be used. To better match incentives, we should want the number of books in print after a particular period to be quite a bit higher, at least 50%. Finding that number can be done, empirically.

There is a risk, though, of depriving some works that are still commercially valuable of a revenue stream. Mandatory formalities, such as affixing a copyright notice and filing a statement of a continued interest in the work can help here. There was a requirement of filing a timely renewal application with the U.S Copyright Office from 1790 to 1992 (the latter date for only some works). Failure to renew meant that copyright owners only got one term of protection, originally that was 14 years, and later it was expanded to 28 years.

The failure to renew was an empirical, market signal about the value copyright owners themselves placed on copyright. The renewal rates also showed a consistent difference in renewal rates for classes of works. The lowest renewal rates (0.4 percent) were for technical drawings, lectures, sermons, and other oral works. The highest renewal rate was for motion pictures (74 percent). Music was 48 percent and books only 7 percent. Our current one-size- fits-all approach ignores this significant data about how copyright owners have themselves valued copyright. Based on this evidence, the correct term of copyright should vary depending on the type of material being protected, with books getting a shorter term than motion pictures.

However we approach our copyright laws in the U.S., we can and should do better than we are now.