Tim Harford, the Financial Times's Undercover Economist, writes about the Happy Birthday to You court case, which finally settled the question of whether the familiar birthday song was still in copyright (it isn't) and uses that as a springboard to ask the question: how long should copyright last?
By which Harford means, "What length of copyright would balance the use of old works in producing new works with the incentive to produce those works at all?" In this area, he is helped by a number of objective economic analyses from rock-ribbed academic and government economists, who studied the question as a purely economic one, without the usual hyperventilating about property rights and theft, and without the survivor-bias discussions about the infinitesimal number of works that go on to be blockbusters decades after their publications.
Most books, films and albums enjoy a brief window of sales. Both author and publisher will have reckoned on making whatever money is to be made within a few years. Some works, of course, are blockbusters that continue to be valuable for decades. In such cases a century of copyright is valuable — yet redundant for the purpose of encouraging innovators. (The cases where works lie undiscovered for decades before finally finding a vast audience are too rare to shape any rational rules on copyright.)
The truth is that 10 years of copyright protection is probably sufficient to justify the time and trouble of producing most creative work — newspapers, films, comic books and music. Thirty years would be more than enough. But we're moving in the opposite direction, with copyright periodically and retroactively extended — as though Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or James Joyce could ever have been motivated by the anticipation that, long after their deaths, copyright terms would be pushed to yet more ludicrous lengths.
Why don't we see a more sensible system of copyright? Two words: Mickey Mouse. That is an oversimplification, of course. But the truth is that a very small number of corporations and literary estates have a lot to gain from inordinately long copyright — and since it matters a lot more to them than to the rest of us, they will focus their lobbying efforts and get their way. Mickey Mouse will enter the public domain in 2024 — unless copyright terms are extended yet again. Watch this space.
Copyrights and wrongs
[Tim Harford/Undercover Economist]