Bureau Of Economic Analysis Shows Why Copyright Terms Should Be Greatly Diminished

from the half-life-of-economic-usefulness dept

We've pointed a few times in the past to a chart from William Patry's book, looking at how frequently copyright was renewed at the 28 year mark back when copyright (a) required registration and (b) required a "renewal" at 28 years to keep it another 28 years. The data is somewhat amazing:
As you can see, very few works are renewed after 28 years. Only movies, at 74% are over the 50% mark. Only 35% of music and only 7% of books tells quite a story. It makes it quite clear that even the copyright holders see almost no value in their copyrights after a short period of time. It appears that the Bureau of Economic Analysis is coming to the same conclusion from a different angle. As Matthew Yglesias notes, as part of its effort to recalibrate how it calculates GDP, the BEA is considering money spent on the creation of content an "investment" in a capital good, which needs to be depreciated over the time period in which it is valuable. Frankly, I'm not convinced this is the smartest way to account for money spent on the creation of content, but either way, the BEA's analysis provides some insight into the standard "economic life" of various pieces of content, which match up with the chart above in many ways.
The most ephemeral cultural works turn out to be musical records, which depreciate at a staggering annual rate of 26.7 percent—meaning they earn a huge share of their lifetime income in their first year of release, and only a tiny number of works have a meaningful level of back-catalog sales. Television shows come next, depreciating at a 16.8 percent rate. Then you have books at 12.1 percent. Movies turn out to be far more durable than TV, music, or books, depreciating only at a fairly low 3.8 percent rate.
While books and music flip flop from the chart above, movies seem to be the only one, in both measurements, that have a particularly long economic life. Yglesias wonders if that's also about to change for movies, especially as studios are forced to move away from windowed releases.
The reason for that, presumably, is that movie studios are quite sophisticated about selling the same product repeatedly. First in theaters, then in DVD and pay TV stations, then to cable networks, and with simultaneous rollouts happening abroad. My guess is that when the BEA looks back in five or 10 years, they're going to find that they've miscalibrated this number because the movie industry is facing substantial business-model transformation on precisely this point. The rise of on-demand entertainment options and the falling quantity of films produced in any given year is putting pressure on traditional market segmentation practices, and this number may not hold up.
I'm not sure if that's really going to be true, especially since one of the advantages of on-demand systems like Netflix is that they open up a wide back catalog to viewers. Prior to the VCR, that was non-existent, and even with the VCR, the back catalog was limited to what a video store could hold, and old products were regularly on the chopping block. So I could see how movies could still have an extended economic life.

Still, as Andy Howard noted in alerting us to this story, this actually gives us yet another tool for evaluating a more reasonable copyright term. If the Bureau of Economic Analysis is saying that the economic life of a piece of music is just a few years, after which it's basically a zero, it seems silly, pointless and counterproductive to keep that work locked up under copyright. Instead, it would make tremendous sense to move it into the public domain, where it might be useful. As we had just discussed recently, when works are in the public domain, it often inspires more creativity as people build on the original work. From an economic standpoint, all of the time between the end of the economic life of a work and when it finally goes into the public domain is simply a massive loss to society and culture.

Filed Under: copyright terms


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  1. identicon
    cpt kangarooski, 25 Apr 2013 @ 11:12am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Interesting, but is it still relevant?

    So you think it should be acceptable for someone to publish my diary or an incomplete story that I haven't finished yet?

    As I said, the public interest isn't promoted by not publishing. You should have time to finish creating works and to publish them, but if you don't, while you shouldn't be forced to publish, neither should you be given extraordinary assistance in keeping them unpublished.

    Your personal papers -- the actual physical objects -- are yours, and should not be stolen, or unlawfully accessed for just the same reason that people should not steal your clothes or furniture. But if the intangible information those copies contain does leak out somehow, the public is better off with that than with nothing.

    No, that's completely unacceptable. Copyright should only apply to PUBLISHED works. Unpublished works should be my property, absolute and inviolate, and there should be NO rights to copy or reproduce my private, unpublished property.

    I feel you may not understand what copyright is, precisely. Copyright is a right to prohibit other people from doing certain things -- copying, distributing, etc. -- with works. It isn't a right to actually do anything, just a right to exclude others from doing things.

    If you have no copyright on a story you write but don't publish, your only method of keeping other people from publishing it is to destroy all the copies of it, or to keep it secret from everyone. If even one other person reads it, and there is no copyright, that person can lawfully copy and publish the work.

    And the reason we have copyright is because it's impossible for a work (that is, the intangible information, as distinct from the copy -- a tangible object containing the work -- and from the copyright -- a right pertaining to works and copies) to be property. It just can't happen, mainly due to works being non-rivalrous.

    And remember, a lot of the greatest works in our culture exist because someone ignored the author and published them anyway from Dickinson to Kafka. Typically this happens posthumously due to the issue of access to manuscripts, so take heart. But if it should happen during the author's life, what's important is that the public is better off, and it is the public that copyright exists to serve.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Techdirt Gear
Shop Now: I Invented Email
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.