Thursday, July 12, 2007

Math Can Set Art Free

In case you needed any further proof that governments in general will, in a vacuum of public opinion, side with corporate interests at the expense of the public good... consider copyright terms.

US Constitution, Patents

Rufus Pollack has written an excellent paper performing a rigorous mathematical cost analysis of copyright terms, seeking to find the optimum term to maximize the amount of welfare derived from creative work, this of course being the correct reason to have copyright (and patent) law in the first place, as expressed in the US Constitution:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries...

This expresses well the balance between too short a term of exclusive right for creators -- decreasing incentive to create, and thus decreasing welfare through that lost work -- and too long a term -- decreasing welfare through work rendered unavailable or artificially costly, not to mention the loss of contribution of the public domain to the creation of new works.

Pollack encodes all of these dynamics (and many more) in his mathematical model and comes to two conclusions. First, as the costs of production and reproduction decrease, the optimal copyright term decreases. This makes complete sense to me, but hey, it's nice to have math on your side. If you want theorize a bit, you can certainly see how this artificial imbalance attempts to right itself in the rampant online copyright violation we see today with vastly decreased cost of distribution. At the least, this suggests that any copyright laws made should err on the side of being too short.

Second, taking some input values for rate of cultural decay and the discount rate of works from the real world, he concludes that the optimal term of copyright today is about 14 years. Making the most conservative of assumptions, the maximum is about 52 years (and the minimum is around 3 years given liberal assumptions). Interestly, the original term of copyright in the US in 1790 was ... 14 years. Perhaps a bit aggressive given the technology of the day, but at least they were planning ahead! Of course copyright terms today are typically lifetime + 50-70 years. Most of the works created in the 20th century remain out of the public domain. How did this happen?

Copyright law falls into a realm of policy (much like, say, space-bourne weaponization policy) that has very little immediate effect on a given citizen, but great effect on the business of certain corporations. This gives government free rein to push through copyright extensions that bring in campaign dollars and cost virtually nothing in public disapproval -- if government is willing to ignore the negative impact to the public welfare at large.