Thursday, October 17, 2013

Copyright and Profitability of Authorship

There are very few places that empirical studies can be used in the social studies, but they are certainly valuable in knocking down blanket theory that is claimed to hold under all circumstances. A recent study, for example, helps to blow up the claim that lack of copyright always results in a benefit to authors. Freakonomics asks:
How do copyright laws affect creativity? Do stronger laws increase profitability — and, therefore, do they increase creativity? If musicians/filmmakers/authors/software designers/etc. etc. etc. don’t have the strong incentive of copyright protection, will they create less or inferior work?
Freakonomics then points to a new working paper (abstractPDF) called “Copyright and the Profitability of Authorship: Evidence from Payments to Writers in the Romantic Period,” Megan MacGarvieand Petra Moser  and quote from the paper:
Proponents of stronger copyright terms have argued that stronger copyright terms encourage creativity by increasing the profitability of authorship.  Empirical evidence, however, is scarce, because data on the profitability of authorship is typically not available to the public.  Moreover at current copyright lengths of 70 years after the author’s death, further extensions may not have any effects on the profitability of authorship. To investigate effects of copyright at lower pre-existing levels of protection, this chapter introduces a new data set of publishers’ payments to authors of British fiction between 1800 and 1830. These data indicate that payments to authors nearly doubled following an increase in the length of copyright in 1814.  These findings suggest that – starting from low pre-existing levels of protection – policies that strengthen copyright terms may, in fact, increase the profitability of authorship.
This empirical data can't make an all encompassing claim, but it does show that it is simply incorrect to claim that all periods of when copyright has been eliminated has somehow benefit authors of creative work. Indeed, it shows the opposite, that what one would intuitively guess, that copyright provides incentive by way of greater income, is in fact the case in some instances.


  1. Enforcing the monopoly increases the profits of the monopolist. DUH.

    The question is not whether the "creativity" in producing the content needs to be encouraged, but rather if the right kind of creativity is encouraged. Anyone visiting a fiction section of a modern book store knows that the answer is emphatic "no". All that this protectionism achieves is increased levels of production of "intellectual" junk.

    What is not seen is that copyright discourages or makes nearly impossible the kind of free-wheeling collaboration and experimentation which builds on work of others: in fact, it is easy to observe that genres (or groups within genres) which explicitly refuse to participate in the copyright system are the only ones which flourish while the rest is stagnating - in the fields as different as software and electronic music. The heavily copyright-controlled fields (commercial software, Hollywood, pop music,etc) are producing copious amounts of the same old garbage, with the value being captured not by the actual inventors and creators but by the hordes of the resellers and repackagers. It the computer ecosystem it got totally ridiculous: companies whose "intellectual" contribution consists of a trivial and badly slapped-together website going for billions while the technologically complicated stuff which actually makes this work (webservers, compilers, interpreters, operating systems, etc) is built and maintained by unpaid volunteers.

  2. Ok Wenzel, you win. Copyright is great. Now, who is going to be in charge of the men with guns to enforce it? You? Or do you want to leave it the psychopaths to pick their man?

    Don't you hear yourself trying to bolster your IP position with empirical evidence. Even with the disclaimer you're reaching. Copyright and IP are government enforced monopolies. Come back from the dark side Robert, we miss you.

    1. Which men with guns are going to enforce your ownership of land? What gives you the right to claim title to it? How can you adequately defend it from someone who's willing to put a bullet through your head from a thousand yards?

      Property rights are human-invented constructs that help us peacefully interact with one another. The idea that people would pay thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of dollars creating intellectual content they didn't own is a Marxist dream akin to the fiction that people will farm and produce food they can't own.

  3. Isn't this a "duh", just like Certificates of Need increase the profits of hospitals? It's a government-granted limitation to competition. Of course it will tend to increase the profits of those on the advantageous side of the barrier to entry.

    What is does is encourage more fiction, because the more you can dream up and claim as yours, the more money you make. I would surmise that a society without copyright laws would produce more non-fiction technical literature, since non-fiction would be useful in dispersing useful knowledge. As well, the fictional stories that do exist would be added onto and modified by others and submitted to the test of the market, where the stronger versions would win out and "evolve".

    All in all, though the profits of the writers would be hurt (just like in any case where a monopoly law is removed), the consumer would be able to find more products of a more competitive quality.

    If you are using this research as a defense of copyright, I also look forward to your defense of Certificates of Need, Mr. Libertarian.

  4. It also increases the profits of the enforcers who claim to have the right to enforce it.

  5. I assume this will be footnoted in your upcoming book, and detailed pop quizzes on the specific findings of the study will be welcomed many years down the road.

  6. The anti-IP crowd are the biggest hypocrites. "Gov granted monopolies with gov enforcers are evil!" *hrumpf* But then they sure do enjoy those gov granted monopolies protecting their business, their house, their land, their car, their person... Point this out and, by sleight of hand, the argument shifts to "scarcity"! *hrumpf*... Whatever. Sanctimonious rationalization of theft. A bunch of people who'll never have any IP themselves so why not steal the wealth from those who due? They're Marxists of the mind.

    1. "But then they sure do enjoy those gov granted monopolies protecting their business, their house, their land, their car, their person..."

      Do you have an example, or is this just an assertion on your part that we are to accept as a fact?

      Most anti-IP proponents are anarcho-capitalists. I have yet to read an anarcho-capitalist that is anti-IP praise the current monopolist police state.

    2. Of course. The anti-IP ancap (I'm a pro-IP ancap) believes in right of self-ownership and private property in land and possessions meaning that defending these things with violence is justified. So like me, they have the expectation someone (gov or private defense agency) will use violence to protect their property rights. Whether granted by gov or enforced by PDA, the anti-IP ancap expects to have an enforced *monopoly* on all other forms of property (self, land, car, etc)... but not IP. Meaning the "IP is a gov granted monopoly" argument is at best a red herring if not outright hypocrisy. And using the "non-scarcity" argument against IP is to conflate economics and ethics i.e. a straw man.

    3. Well, this is an area that I haven't worked out completely for myself. I see legitimate arguments on both sides.

    4. So I guess your idea or work is SOOOO unique it doesn't relate to any other work that has ever been produced in the history of mankind!?! Good luck with that one when those who hold the copyright on those other works come searching for YOU!

    5. @Orin - I've heard that sentiment before... "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. ... If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." B. Obama.

      But your comment just shows ignorance over what IP really is. A patent for instance is only awarded if the idea is "novel, functional and non-obvious." So to get a patent at all, you have to demonstrate that your idea is something new and performs a function. And an incremental improvement is still an improvement. With copyright, you can't just copy someone else's work. There's nothing wrong with copyrighting derivative works though. A derivative work is still a new work.

      But let's consider the implication of your anti-IP stance. That if a JK Rowling spends years writing a novel, she should receive nothing for her effort and sacrifice? Would she have done it? Not a chance.

  7. What's the formula, Robert???

  8. There is at least one example of the lack of government-enforced copyright protection allowing for an environment of tremendous advancement in society. During the nineteenth century in Germany, society advanced from very agrarian and industrially far behind England to very industrial and on par in many ways with England. During this century, Germany - not even a formal state for much of this period - had no copyright law, while England did.

    With that said, I remain in the camp of pro-IP to the extent it can be developed consistent with NAP. This seems quite possible in the area of trade secrets, and certainly not impossible in terms of copyright and patent. The cost of enforcement, to be privately funded, will likely self-limit the use of such methods.

    1. Maybe so. But then patent law contributed greatly to the Italian Renaissance. Florence, Venice and other Italian city-states implemented patent laws to attract artisans and inventors and discourage the trade-secret practices of the guilds:

      As a curiosity, below is supposedly the world's first patent law, the patent statute of Venice, 1474 -

      "WE HAVE among us men of great genius, apt to invent and discover ingenious
      devices; and in view of the grandeur and virtue of our city, more such men come
      to us every day from diverse parts. Now, if provision were made for the works and
      devices discovered by such persons, so that others who may see them could not
      build them and take the inventor’s honor away, more men would then apply their
      genius, would discover, and would build devices of great utility and benefit to our


      Be it enacted that, by the authority of this Council, every person who shall build
      any new and ingenious device in this City, not previously made in our Commonwealth,
      shall give notice of it to the office of our General Welfare Board when it has been
      reduced to perfection so that it can be used and operated. It being forbidden to every
      other person in any of our territories and towns to make any further device
      conforming with and similar to said one, without the consent and license of the author,
      for the term of 10 years. And if anybody builds it in violation hereof, the aforesaid
      author and inventor shall be entitled to have him summoned before any magistrate
      of this City, by which magistrate the said infringer shall be constrained to pay
      him hundred ducats; and the device shall be destroyed at once. It being, however, within
      the power and discretion of the Government, in its activities, to take and use any
      such device and instrument, with this condition however that no one but the
      author shall operate it."