January 23, 2007  ·  Lessig

University of Georgia Professor Paul Heald has been working for a long time to understand the right balance in copyright. He’s got a fantastic new empirical study posted at SSRN that evaluates the effect on access from work passing into the public domain. Recall one argument for extending a copyright term is that it gives the copyright owner incentives to keep old works alive. Heald tests this hypothesis by looking at the availability of best sellers after the pass into the public domain.

The study is interestingly rich, and the conclusions are interestingly contingent. But the bottom line for books is that a work’s passing into the public domain increases access at a lower price. Or put differently: if you want to make sure the classics are preserved, the public domain is a good tool to do just that.

The paper has not been published yet. But consistent with the ideals of science, Heald is making all the data freely available so others can test the hypothesis. The data is being housed at Science Commons just now. So download (paper/data), test, re-test, and see if Heald is right.

One thing’s for sure, however: this is the right way to make scientific knowledge available. Bravo, Professor Heald.

  • Neal

    I advocate the following change to copyright law. You get an initial period of automatic protection, 10 years, for creating a work. The protection could be extended beyond this period, in 5-10 year increments, if and only if you keep the work in production* and available to the public at a reasonable* market price.

    In other words, and this is the important part, if it’s not worth production then it’s not worth protection and into the public domain in goes.

    That should provide reasonable protection for everyone, including Disney, and not harm the greater good. If a work stays in demand enough for a creator to keep reproducing en-mass, at least once every 10 years, then it’s under their control for a longer period of time. On the other hand, if they don’t find it worth their time, trouble, or risk (financial or other) to keep the work available to the public at large then it defaults to becoming the property of the public at large.

    Honestly, I could care less about Disney’s entertainment and what they do with it. What pisses me is that they deprive society of material of real value by buying legislation which also keeps books out of our hands for many, many, decades after the creator/publisher decides that all commercial value is gone. Sell it to us or give it to us, your choice, but you shouldn’t be able to keep it from us just because you’re too lazy, too selfish, too scared, or too comfortable to bother with keeping it in production.

    *”In production” and “reasonable market price” would have to be defined so as not to allow loopholes that extend protection without realistically keep the work available. An item in active production in quantity would allow for greater than the inflation adjusted original price since lower volume would be likely and a real attempt at commericalization was being made. For one-off or on-demand works price restrictions would be put in place to qualify for the extension: no more than twice the original price (adjusted for inflation), no more than twice the price of comparable items on the market, etc.

  • three blind mice

    Although the data alone cannot dispel worries of
    over-exploitation (the assertion that the public domain “commons” is being over-grazed), several
    arguments are offered to suggest why congestion is unlikely to be a problem with works of
    fiction. Most importantly, it is clear that congestion theorists have not borne their burden of
    proving that central planning and control for important creative goods are necessary to prevent

    um, the problem is not “overgrazing” of “the commons”, rather the problem is that as copyright expires the “commons” becomes infested with weeds of past works that choke out the incentive for NEW works to take root.

    in other words, removing the copyright on bambi will ONLY result in more bambi.

    and one more thing: TO HELL WITH GEORGIA!

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