Reconsidering Copyright

Dec 5 2012 @ 8:28am

Highlighting a now-withdrawn Republican Study Committee memo (pdf) that blasted the current intellectual property system, Virginia Postrel argues that instead of "balancing the interests of consumers and future producers," copyright policy has become "an expanding monopoly privilege for well-connected industries." She looks at Robert Frost's 1923 poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" as an example:

Back then you only got copyright privileges for works officially registered with the copyright office, and only for a term of 28 years, which could be renewed if you filed again, as Frost did in 1951. Requiring such simple procedures reserved copyright privileges for creators with strong commercial or sentimental interests in limiting the publication of their works. Today, by contrast, copyright automatically applies to every eligible work, including your vacation snapshots and your 4-year-old’s handmade Mother’s Day card.

After a series of congressional reforms to copyright term length, the poem will not enter the public domain until 2018. Postrel adds:

Fifty-six years of copyright was clearly enough to encourage Frost to write the poem. Anything further is just a windfall for his estate and his publisher. The Constitution, reformers are quick to note, gave Congress the right to grant copyrights "to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts," not to benefit producers.

Several weeks ago, Yglesias applauded the RSC memo's debunking of the myth "that our copyright system promotes the most innovation and productivity":

Longer-duration copyrights theoretically create larger financial incentives for creators to innovate and develop great characters and great stories. On the other hand, shorter-duration copyrights reduce the cost of artistic production and innovation.

Because the basic stories of Hamlet, Snow White, and Robin Rood are in the public domain, they can be easily and cheaply treated and retreated by artists in a variety of media. Spider-Man, by contrast, is enmeshed in a web of legal obligations that stifle creativity. Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures alone may make Spider-Man films, and unless they release them very frequently, they’ll lose this lucrative monopoly and the rights will revert back to Marvel. Decisions about which stories get told are driven by intellectual property considerations rather than dramatic ones. Peter Parker can’t appear in an Avengers film, and Iron Man can’t appear in a Spider-Man movie because the rights belong to different studios.