The Economics of Copyright Law and Problems With Its Implementation
- Jeffrey L. HarrisonJeffrey L. HarrisonDepartment of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, University of Florida
Without copyright law, authors would be unable to internalize the benefits of their writings. Copyright law reacts to this by providing authors with a period of exclusivity. The relevant legislation has a contract-like character; authors receive a period of exclusivity, and the public benefits by virtue of original writings that eventually pass into the public domain. Ideally each contract between the public and an author would be individually negotiated. Because U.S. copyright law is strictly utilitarian, authors would be “paid” the lowest amount possible to bring their works into existence. For example, popular authors may be able to internalize sufficient returns in just a few years. In other cases, a longer period of exclusivity is necessary. Huge transaction costs prohibit individual transactions and, at this writing, most works are protected for the life of the author plus 70 years.
As an economic matter, the actual implementation of copyright law is hard to rationalize. Works with even a modicum of creativity are copyrightable. This can result in a disincentive to be creative and invites expensive legal disputes about works that are socially irrelevant. In addition, works receive levels of protection that are independent of their value to the public. In some instances Congress with the approval of the Supreme Court has extended the copyright term for works already in existence. Retroactive extension of the copyright term cannot have an impact on works in existence. Oddly, copyright law views authors as profit maximizers but also limits the value of their works by allowing heirs to terminate assignments after a set period of time. Finally, the remedy for copyright infringement is the damages suffered by the author plus all profits made by the infringer that can be traced to the infringement. It is not clear that this remedy is consistent with the goals of copyright law.