Optimal Copyright Law Length is 14 Years

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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To get back in the spirit of posting, I’d like to note the following story, via Irish law blog cearta.ie: How long should the copyright term be?

In Irelend, it’s life + 70 years, as it essentially is in the U.S. after various changes to federal law, partly as a result of industry lobbying and partly as a result of new international treaties like TRIPS:

Works created in or after 1978 are extended copyright protection for a term defined in 17 U.S.C. § 302. With the passage of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, these works are granted copyright protection for a term ending 70 years after the death of the author. If the work was a work for hire (e.g., those created by a corporation) then copyright persists for 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever is shortest.

(From Wikipedia.)

From the Ars Technica article by Nate Anderson:

It’s easy enough to find out how long copyrights last, but much harder to decide how long they should last—but that didn’t stop Cambridge University PhD candidate Rufus Pollock from using economics formulas to answer the question. In a newly-released paper, Pollock pegs the “optimal level for copyright” at only 14 years.

Pollock’s work is based on the promise that the optimal level of copyright drops as the costs of producing creative work go down. As it has grown simpler to print books, record music, and edit films using new digital tools, the production and reproduction costs for creative work in have dropped substantially, but actual copyright law has only increased.

According to Pollock’s calculations (and his paper [PDF] is full of calculations), this is exactly the opposite result that one would expect from a rational copyright system. Of course, there’s no guarantee that copyright law has anything to do with rationality; as Pollock puts it, “the level of protection is not usually determined by a benevolent and rational policy-maker but rather by lobbying.” The predictable result has been a steady increase in the period of copyright protection during the twentieth century.