Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Use Based Copyright Terms

I didn't blog last week because, well, I was at Disneyland. But I love IP, and when you're a hammer, everything is a nail. So, I couldn't help but think as I looked at the gigantic Mickey Mouse on the Ferris wheel that things are going to start getting messy when the copyright in Mickey runs out.

It occurs to me that serial, long term uses of copyrighted works are different than one time publications. To the extent that copyright is intended to incentivize investment in creative works, then losing protection over time can limit the incentive to develop quality long term work.  I'm not just talking about Mickey - Superman (and the additional complication of rights clawback) and other serial comics create issues. Star Trek is 50, Rocky and Star Wars are 40, and even Jurassic Park is 25 years old. The solution we got to this problem, a longer term for everything, was not the right one. A better solution is that terms should last as long as copyrights are in use, plus a few years. Works that are simply "sold" without any new derivative work would be capped, so works without improvement could not last forever.

Now, this is not to say there aren't costs to protecting copyrights while they are still in use. There is a path dependency that can reduce incentives to come up with new works (in other words, bad sequels instead of new creativity). There is also value associated with the public being able to use works in their own ways.

I'm personally not worried about either of these. On the first, there are plenty of incentives for new entrants to create new works (we got Star Trek, then Star Wars, then Battlestar Galactica (I and II), and now the Expanse), and even serial works become stale after a while (there was no Rocky 50, as some parodies predicted). On the second, I think it is inconsistent with the first concern to worry about path dependence while also worrying that others should be able to use the works. Of course, fresh eyes can bring new ideas to the expression, but hopefully the original owners do that. At this point, non-utilitarian concerns come into play. As between a party who has invested in making a work valuable over a long period of time and a party who would like to use that value, I side with the investor and say newcomers can create their own new value. I realize that many disagree with me on this point. That said, I think there are some noncompetitive uses - fan fiction, say - that can bring new ideas and allow some new works.

Note that a use-based term cuts both ways. As Paul Heald has demonstrated, there is a significant drop in availability for older books that are still within the copyright term. A use-based rule would either end the term, or perhaps create a commercialization bounty similar to that proposed by Ted Sichelman for patents.

A great idea, right? Except, I thought no way that nobody else looked at Mickey and thought the same thing. So, at the IP Scholars Conference last week (which was great, by the way), I asked my colleague Shyam Balganesh from Penn about it, and he didn't even blink before saying that Landes and Posner wrote an article 15 years ago called Indefinitely Renewable Copyright, located here.

As you would expect from these two authors, they detail the costs and benefits of copyright terms, and they provide empirical evidence that showed how shorter copyright terms led to very few renewals. The primary divergence from my idea is that I would allow a challenge based on lack of use, whereas Landes and Posner seem to assume that use is synonymous with registration (as their data shows). But I can imagine times when parties renew but then do not use their works. Thus, the system should look a bit more like trademarks.

I've done no literature review, so it's entirely possible that others have written about this. If you wrote or know of such an article, feel free to pass it along, and I'll add it here for posterity.

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