Study Shows That Wartime Program To Abolish Copyright On German Science Books Brought Significant Benefits To US

from the perhaps-we-should-do-it-more-often dept

As Techdirt readers know, there is a ratchet effect that means copyright always gets longer and stronger. As well as being inherently unfair -- why must the public always lose out when copyright law is changed? -- there's another unfortunate consequence. If the term or breadth of copyright were reduced from time to time, we would be able to test the effects of doing so on things like creativity. For example, if it turned out that shortening copyright increased the number of works being produced, then there would be a strong argument for reducing it further in the hope that the effect would be strengthened. The fact that we have been unable test this hypothesis is rather convenient for copyright maximalists. It means they can continue to call for the term of copyright to be increased without having to address the argument that this will cause less creativity, or reduce access to older works.

Even though it is not possible to test the effects of reduced copyright directly, two US academics, Barbara Biasi and Petra Moser, have spotted a clever way of investigating the idea indirectly, in the field of science publishing. As they write in a post on CEPR's policy portal, in 1942 the US Book Republication Program (BRP) allowed US publishers to reprint exact copies of German-owned science books, effectively abolishing copyright for that class of works. They have looked at what impact this dramatic change had on the use of those reprinted works by scientists. Comparing citation rates before and after the BRP was introduced is not enough on its own: citation rates fluctuate, so it is necessary to compare the BRP citation rate with something else. The researchers' solution is to look at the citation rate of Swiss books from the same time:

This approach addresses the issue that English-language citations may have increased mechanically after 1942, if English-language scientists published more after the war. Like German scientists, Swiss scientists were leaders in chemistry and mathematics and wrote primarily in German, but due to Switzerland's neutrality, Swiss-owned copyrights were not accessible to the BRP. [Office of Library Services] estimates of a matched sample of BRP and Swiss books (in similar fields and with similar levels of pre-BRP non-English citations) confirm the significant increase in citations in response to the BRP.

Specifically, there was a 67% increase in citations of BRP books compared to similar Swiss books. The research suggests this was driven largely by the 25% drop in average prices seen after the BRP scheme was introduced. The reduction in price seems to have allowed a wider range of US libraries to purchase the more affordable BRP texts, whereas Swiss books remained concentrated in the holdings of two wealthy research libraries (Yale and Chicago). Better access was correlated with more citations: the data shows that the latter increased most near the locations of BRP libraries. The researchers conclude:

In the context of contemporary debates, our findings imply that policies which strengthen copyrights, such as extensions in copyright length, can create enormous welfare costs by discouraging follow-on science, especially among less affluent institutions and scientists.

Critics might point out that this is just one study of one rather specific area. But that's an argument for reducing copyright terms, perhaps on a trial basis, to see whether the results of this research are confirmed. However, the copyright ratchet will never allow that, not least because the companies involved probably know it would confirm that constantly strengthening copyright is bad for everyone except themselves.

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Filed Under: benefits, copyright, germany, public domain, science, us

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