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Some Evidence on the Relationship Between Copyright and Profit

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?

These question are both broad and long; many great minds have wrestled with them, and will continue to do so. Our recurring guest bloggers Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman regularly discuss copyright; Levitt touched on it here, and we discussed copyright protection in this podcast.

Now, in a new working paper (abstract; PDF) called “Copyright and the Profitability of Authorship: Evidence from Payments to Writers in the Romantic Period,” Megan MacGarvie and Petra Moser take up the argument: 

Scott Turow, President of the American Authors’ Guild, warned that regimes that weaken copyright, such as digital piracy may cause the “slow death of the American author” (Turow 2013). Empirical analyses of file sharing, however, reveal no significant effects on the quantity or quality of recorded music (Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf 2009; Waldfogel 2013), which suggests that the importance of copyright protection may be overstated.

So what do the authors find? They used a change in British copyright law to measure the effects and magnitude:

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.