An argument for weaker copyright in books

From Barbara Biasi and Petra Moser:

Copyrights, which establish intellectual property in music, science,and other creative goods, are intended to encourage creativity. Yet, copyrights also raise the cost of accessing existing work – potentially discouraging future innovation.This paper uses an exogenous shift towards weak copyrights(and low access costs) during WWII to examine the potentially adverse effects of copyrights on science. Using two alternative identification strategies, we show that weaker copyrights encouraged the creation of follow-on science, measured by citations.This change is driven by a reduction in access costs, allowing scientists at less affluent institutions to use existing knowledge in new follow-on research.

The paper title is “Effects of Copyrights on Science: Evidence from the WWII Book Republication Program.”


The paper merely shows, yet again, that the demand curve slopes downward. Of course a lower price (free) will encourage more consumption.

Ask yourself this: if you like no copyrights, would you also advocate free textbooks? Last I checked some economics textbooks cost several hundred quid. (quid? What's a quid worth?)

That said, while I favor copyrights, I also feel, unlike today, Federally funded science should be copyright free. But it's not.

(c) 2020 by Ray Lopez, all worldwide rights reserved.

There are quite a few scientific research funders who do, in fact, require open access publication of results. This typically involves a creative commons license that eliminates copyright barriers (material is free to re-use, modify, etc. though it's not "copyright free" because there is still legal recourse if someone steals your work without attributing you...).

I believe there is a requirement that U.S. government funded research must be freely available after 12 months, though I don't know the details.

"Federally funded science should be copyright free".

Good point, Ray, athough federally funded science is normally subject to patent rather than copyright (as you know!). Otherwise, I agree completely.

And, also to dan111's comment. I am not an expert on this; however, it is my understanding that the answer to who owns the rights (patent, copyright or whatever) to federally funded research is "it depends". In the simple case where a federal employee works on a project on government time and with government resources for his or her employer (i.e., the federal government), the intellectual property rights to that work belong to the federal government (and they seem to own a large number of patents). However, it is further my understanding that most often when the government funds research at public and private universities, hospitals, etc., the rights most often go to the funded institution and/or their employees, the latter as dictated by the employment agreement. See here for a brief description wherein it appears much of the policy is the result of executive orders.

This may be dated, so if someone has more recent and accurate material, I'd be grateful for further information.

Finally, almost all research done by universities and other "non-profit" entities is federally funded, at least in part. Even if those entities do not (always) get direct federal funds, they are granted tax-exempt status (no tax on income or on contributions to them). This *is* a form of federal funding, even if it is not complete.

This is an area that demands a lot more attention by economists, "public intellectuals" and, ultimately, taxpayers. These non-profits want and get all the benefits the federal government gives them and yet they also want to act as private enterprises when it comes to divvying up the profits. The intellectual property produced by those efforts should be in the public domain if tax-exempt status is given them. It is inconsistent to be given special treatment and then to claim that all the spoils are "proprietary".

Nice comment.

Not sure whether it's uncouth of me to respond, but hey I'll do it anyway and you guys can tell me to shut up :)

1) We go beyond showing that the demand for knowledge declines with its price. (Even though that's important already to test and show, as we should test any theory on which policies are built!).

Many of these books go to libraries, where in principle, people should be able to access them for free. We show that long-lived copyrights, by raising price, reduce access for scientists - especially at poorer institutions. Essentially only the rich places in the Northeast and Midwest (like Harvard, Yale, NYU, Chicago) were able to afford the books under the market price for frontier science. Once the price went down, our books spread to poorer institutions, where people used them in new research. This is really important.

We also go beyond examining a price of zero. I agree with the comments that prices are too high, but also that some compensation is needed to defray publishers for their service. We show that you don't need to reduce the price to zero. Even a reduction by 25%, or a subsidy would go a long way.

Think of it as Jstor reducing its price by 25% for institutions that are less well-funded in the United States and abroad. Or governments providing subsidies to help researchers access books and Journal articles at these institutions. Our work suggest that such policies can be enormously effective in encourage new research and innovation - measured by publications, new PhDs, and patents.

And I could not agree more. This is an area that deserves a lot more evidence-based dialogue and attention by economists.


Thank you for bringing up libraries! It's the perfect example of how schizophrenic IP policy is. Anyone in favor of people being able to freely access all the world's knowledge and culture for free via a public library should be in favor of cutting out the middle man and just eliminating (or drastically reducing) copyright. Conversely, anyone who is in favor of ideas being owned should be appalled at the prospect of these government funded dens of theft.

Yet overwhelmingly everyone supports both institutions. If you find yourself supporting both, I suggest you spend some time reflecting on why that might be.

Because libraries buy books? And library patrons pay for the privilege of loaning books?

That's what I do all day, every day.

I do support public libraries.

My stance on copyrights is a bit more nuanced. I do not support strong copyrights that last for 100 years. Based on the historical data, 20 years would do just fine for encouraging creativity. Artists and creators need some type of intellectual property protection to live (otherwise only the kids of rich people become artists, which is NOT what we want).

But copyrights should be short enough to allow others to access the work, too. And if they can't be shortened, we need some way to reduce access costs.


Not at all "uncouth". While your comment was directed more at copyrights in general rather than federally funded or assisted research, I'd like to respond with a few points (indirectly, also, to others in this thread).

First, I think you overstate somewhat the ability of libraries other than a small group such as Harvard to purchase scientific books. Yes, they are expensive, but I suspect that purchasing relevant books would not be a serious problem for most research universities (and if it is, perhaps they are spending too much money on things non-essential to real research).

As for "public libraries" outside research centers, I doubt there is much demand at the typical local library for recent books and papers or the sort that would generate additional groundbreaking research. Actually, to my knowledge, there is not a very wide exception for public libraries in regard to copyright. They are not allowed to compete commercially with the author and publisher and can only make (I think) up to one additional copy. "Fair use" applies to everyone and not just what you pick up at the local library. You can lend your own copy to someone to read just like a library so long as you don't charge for it. I think it is good that people can access works at a local library and not have to pay for the work itself. The "user fee", if there is one, is so small as to be negligible. To the extent people are using copyrighted works at libraries may also marginally raise the price for others (books with a limited audience are expensive in large part because of the low volume of sales---libraries exacerbate that further from the perspective of publisher and author).

All that said, I completely agree that the copyright term is much too long. The law should have a good balance between the incentives for authors and publishers and the general public good. There is no rational reason why the heirs of authors should enjoy royalty rights for up to 70 years after an author's death.

The difficult problem today is in reconciling these competing interests (innovation and public access) with the technology of the internet. What's the difference between a library offering access to its copy from the stacks and offering it online (in essence, to the world)? I don't have an answer to how a good balance can be struck, but my views on federally funded works is clear.

"Federally funded science should be copyright free. But it's not."

To expand this a bit, publicly funded science should be in the public domain.

We live in an era now where they are both trends and counter trends. On the one hand public institutiond often have intellectual property dreams, but on the other hand many researchers now upload their stuff to GitHub.

Perhaps GitHub is already of the scale of the WWII Book Republication Program. Something to be encouraged.

No, @ray. You're missing the point entirely (willfully?). It's that the *production* of science increased. Since existing ideas are a primary input into the production process of further ideas, both are true (shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's familiar with Say's law), but only one is important. The whole justification for copyright is that it is supposed to increase the *production* of copyrightable works, but in fact has the opposite effect by raising the cost of the primary input (among other mechanisms).

@North49 - you're (intentionally?) putting words into my mouth. From the four corners of the abstract ("Using two alternative identification strategies, we show that weaker copyrights encouraged the creation of follow-on science, measured by citations") it seems I'm closer to the literal meaning of this sentence. You say "production" (of science) = number of citations while I say "consumption" (of science) = number of citations. Essentially you are assuming that a paper that produces more citations is somehow more novel, when in fact it could be simply rehashing old stuff. The safer ground is to say, as I did, that 'consumption' of science is increased (possibly for the better, or, it can't hurt).

Bonus trivia: surely Vivian Darkbloom and anonymous agree that we need differing terms of protection for copyrights and patents and trademarks depending on strength of novelty. For example, an extremely novel patent/copyright/trademark, as evidenced by say commercial success (Wright Bros aeroplane, Disney cartoon, novel trademark like Xerox) would get a longer term of protection than a trivial "incremental" improvement? That would encourage real innovation since presently the 'one size fits all' IP term of protection (50+ 75+ years, 20 years and indefinitely, roughly, for copyright, patent and trademark) is too crude a protection, giving too much for small improvements and too little for fundamental novelties. Thank you for your agreement guys.

Well, yes. Free textbooks used to be the norm. A student's family paid taxes or contributed to a fund to pay for a school and all materials were furnished by the school. Then, starting in the 1950's, some school began charging a slight fee at the beginning of school to pay for some things, especially extra-curricular activities. As the federal government asserted increasing control (over the people as well as the finances) over schools, that fee has increased exponentially, as do most things government associated

Science seems like a special case, as scientists mainly don't get credit or income from the work itself. The text of their publications isn't the primary thing of value for them, but rather getting reputation and funding for having done something the field views as important.

They need protection from stealing their work, but this is driven by norms against plagiarism and reputational harm, rather than legal penalties against copyright.

Copyrights in science mainly serve publishers, and their incentives don't line up with those of scientists. Scientists benefit from dissemination, while publishers benefit from barriers to dissemination that allow them to collect income. Yeah, scientists need publishers, but the right copyright for them is "as weak as possible without scientific publishing ceasing to exist".

The embrace of open access by scientists illustrates this (and open access general involves a creative commons license that freely gives away rights under copyright).

So, it's interesting, but I'm not sure one should reason from this to "books" generally. Plus there is the issue of massive changes in how information is accessed in the last 20 years or so.

Valuable publications have reasons to protect their reputation, so you can trust the information more than ones that don’t have value. If you weaken copyright then you make these prestigious publications less valuable which make increase the chances either they will lower quality to save money or someone will be able to use their reputation for gain. I feel this has happened to a lot of print media, where we have seen what used to be very trusted publications become either click bait or print untrue or distorted information for reasons of political advocacy. The danger is in the transition of course to the new equilibrium, older people often don’t realise what has happened to classic media and trust them too much. Younger people realise this. In the case of scientific publications maybe a better system than reputation can be developed, but it hasn’t yet.

I don't see this in medical research, the field I'm familiar with.

The reputation of the top journals seems mainly self-perpetuating. They are the most prestigious, so they continue to attract the best work. If they have better quality, is because they can be more selective and attract better (volunteer) peer reviewers. Their prestige doesn't appear to rely on extra resources, beyond the level any journal needs to operate this process.

Note that by "weakening" copyright I mean lowering or removing barriers to access and legitimate reuse--not removing protections against plagiarism and other forms of theft (which would indeed be problematic). Typical open copyright licenses such as Creative Commons allow this, and they are widely used by open access journals.

Marginal Innovation. Not "follow-on science". I mean, what self-respecting scientist wants to "follow". The words we choose are important.

Tim Taylor (the Conversable Economist) often writes about innovation, where it occurs (at the margin), what policies promote it, etc. I too was drawn to the blockbuster innovation until reading where the most useful innovations occur. Moonshots are nice, but a series of marginal innovations are more likely to get one to the moon. Alas, Americans seem incapable of the marginal innovation. Boeing. Transit. The examples are many, the exceptions few. By comparison, the Chinese seem perfectly content with marginal innovations, taking blockbuster innovations by others and making marginal innovations to improve them.

You need to pick better examples. How is it that hurtling through the sky in a metal tube has became the safest form of transportation ever--and also dirt cheap? Marginal innovation, largely occurring in America with Boeing as a major player.

The two recent crashes were tragic, but the fact that two crashes out of 500,000 737 MAX flights is a major scandal shows just how far marginal innovation in airline safety has come.

To beat a dead horse here and all over the web, there hasn't been any major innovations in the past 50 years. It's been all marginal, as you pointed out. All we did was take niche things and made available to the average person. That's the real change for society.

What made the Boeing 737 innovative in 1967-68 when it was introduced was the low-slung wing design, which made it efficient in large airports and small. The innovation in the updated 737 Max is the more fuel-efficient engines. More fuel efficient but much larger engines, engines too large to fit on the low-slung wings. Boeing could have re-designed the 737 to accommodate the larger, more fuel efficient engines, but that would have been both costly and time-consuming, time being critical because Boeing was in a race with Airbus to get the aircraft with the fuel efficient engines in service first and gain a big advantage over Airbus. Boeing chose profits over innovation and kept the low-slung wing design by shoving the engines forward on the wings so they wouldn't drag the ground. But that caused the nose of the aircraft to pitch up, risk stall. Believing the risk of stall so great that pilots would not respond correctly, Boeing chose to install a device that would make the aircraft self-driving, forcing the nose down to prevent stall. Boeing beat Airbus to market and sold thousands of the updated 737. With catastrophic consequences. If one is willing to read informed comment on what happened at Boeing, one will learn that Boeing, once highly innovative, became just another finance company, the current quarter's profits more important than the product. Of course, one who worships at the altar of markets won't accept that view. Innovation, lost to an ideology that worships markets.

If copyrights are property and an asset, we need to handle them like other property and tax them. Since they are property than can be bought and sold, you can solve the valuation problem by requiring the owner to set the value for tax purposes and pay the tax every year. However, the owner must be willing to sell the copyright at the tax valuation plus X% profit above that valuation and the buyer must then pay the tax on the higher value.

This would free up copyrights on a ton of old junk that has no real value but still may have minor value being incorporated with some other copyrights making something new.

Think through your idea. What happens when somebody has created a valuable work, but is not rich? They will have to either bankrupt themselves to protect their work or sell it for peanuts to a big company.

Essentially this rule ends meaningful copyright protection for independent creators.

A “valuable work” with no market demand? I thought free markets were supposed to solve this problem. If you're sitting on a gold mine and can’t find a buyer for your gold, that’s very odd, but surely a bank would extend you a generous line of credit secured by your “valuable work” as collateral? How is this different from any other form of property?

Ah well, as usual, the “science” of economics can get us whatever result the ownership class deems useful at the time.

There is no good faith argument to support the current US-led standard of lifetime or the author plus 70 years as a rational copyright term for achieving the stated goals of copyright. None. The most zealous pro-copyright legal scholar confronted with this challenge head-on will sheepishly admit that it’s all down to “regulatory capture” (a euphemism for political corruption) and agree that the original term of 14 years plus the option of extension to 28 with payment of a hefty fee is more than generous enough to achieve the aims of copyright policy.

Once again, concentrated capital wins out over diffuse capital, as is ever the case in libertarian paradise.

"Copyrights, which establish intellectual property in music, science,and other creative goods, are intended to encourage creativity. "

No, copyrights are intended to protect money. If they do indeed drive creativity it's an accidental side-effect, not an intended result.

Well, I got news for you: Even creatives need money. Unless of course, they are independently wealthy, like poets and writers in the 18th century. That does not create the best poetry.

You want a system that gives creative people enough money to live so that people from all backgrounds can participate. Just not after they are dead.

Seriously though, there's got to be a balance between creating a system that allows everyone to participate, regardless of how much money their Dad has in the bank, and also allows other people to use the work, enjoy it, and build on it with new creativity. Designing such a system is obviously difficult, which is why we need to do research on copyright.

75 year copyrights are far too long. The limit should be maybe 20 years, tops. Compare this to patents on drugs, where you barely have time to get the product to market before the patent expires. Has that stifled innovation?

In a world without copyrights, would the Star Wars franchise not exist? I doubt it - it would probably be far bigger with dozens of spinoff fan films on the market, and the fans themselves would be making the money off them. Instead of turning George Lucas or JK Rowling into billionaires, the profits would be widely distributed among numerous fans that contribute to making merchandise related to the books and films. Fans would be able to make money by selling art spun off from the series. I can't imagine that making it possible for fans to make and sell their own Harry Potter merchandise is going to disincentivize future JK Rowlings.

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