Fred Foldvary on Copyrights
|September 10, 2003||Posted by Staff under Archive, Progress Report, The Progress Report|
Fred Foldvary’s Editorial
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
A copyright is a legal property right to a text, granted to the author or originator, making it illegal for others to copy it. Such texts include writing, music, pictures, and computer programs. An idea cannot be copyrighted, but only its expression in a text, which is a sequence of symbols. In the USA, for works created on or after 1978, the copyrights lasts until 70 years after the death of the last surviving author. For anonymous works, the copyright is 95 years from the year of its first publication, or 120 years from the year of creation, whichever expires first. Earlier works are copyrighted for 28 years, renewable for 67 years. (For the US copyright law, view http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/).
Unlike patents, copyright does not protect an author from an independently produced text that is similar. An author can obtain an official copyright from the government by submitting the work, but also, unpublished creations have a common-law copyright in the USA and other countries with such law. Published works with an official copyright indicate this with a copyright notice.
Is a copyright a monopoly privilege that violates free-market principles? Some critics point out that unlike tangible goods, if one copies a text, the author still has his copy. They say when someone buys a text, the medium of the text, such as a book, is now his property, and he should be able to copy it.
Copyright law does permit “fair use.” One may copy small portions of a text for educational purposes, for example, so long as the copy is not sold commercially and if it does not reduce the sales of the original work. Economically, copyright protection provides an incentive to create books, music, pictures, and films, since the royalties to the author and profits to the publisher are greater if others may not make identical copies. Copyright protection does not really hurt others, since others would not have the work if it were not created in the first place.
In his book Law’s Order, David Friedman points out that, unlike patents, intellectual property in texts is easy to define and cheap to enforce. Government therefore grants copyrights easily, and for a long term.
The economics of texts favor copyright protection, since the benefits are greater than the social costs. The social cost is making texts more expensive, but the benefit is that many texts would not be there at all if the author did not have an intellectual property right to his creation.
But is copyright morally warranted? Consider an author who prints and sells copies of his book. Each purchaser must sign a contract promising not to copy the book without permission. The contract also says that if the purchaser transfers the book to another person, the new buyer must also sign the contract, and if the buyer later abandons or loses the book, the rights of possession revert to the author. The contract is laid out on the first page of the book for all to see. In that case, copying the book without permission would violate the contract, and be morally wrong.
It would be cumbersome to have to sign such a contract for each book. The contracts would have to be mailed to the author, who would have to keep large files. So for convenience, the law lets the author put in a statement at the beginning of the book, such as “Copyright 2001 by Fred Foldvary.” This is a shorthand way of contracting; the buyer knows that he promises not to copy the work if that notice appears on the book.
Copyrights are thus morally justified, but the question then is, how long should the copyright last? Consider again the contract between the author and the buyer. If the author dies, the contract expires as well. If you make a contract with somebody, third parties are not bound by it. So when the author dies, the copyright should expire. Economically also, there may be an additional incentive to write a work if the author’s heirs will also get royalties, but the author could cover his heirs with insurance also, or have his wife or children co-author the work and share the copyright.
Current US copyright law seems too restrictive. The copyright should expire with the authors’ death. For anonymous works, 100 years from the time of creation should be sufficient. The work would then be in the public domain, freely available to anyone.
The rule, “to the creator belongs the creation,” should apply to intellectual creations as well as physical objects. The author does lose something when somebody copies his work without permission: the right to the revenue from the work. It is both economically efficient and morally right that the author retain rights to the product of his mental labor. But there is little or no moral or economic justification for these rights to persist after the death of the originators.
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Copyright 2001 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.