Do Bad Things Happen When Works Enter the Public Domain Empirical Tests of Copyright Term Extension


The most interesting thing about this paper was the arguments put forward by the supporters of copyright extension. They are so distressingly bad that it seems pointless to empirically test them. Theoretical arguments are sufficient to show them to be faulty. Nevertheless, the authors carried out some experiments that show the obvious to be true.


According to the current copyright statute, in 2018, copyrighted works of music,
film, and literature will begin to transition into the public domain. While this will
prove a boon for users and creators, it could be disastrous for the owners of these
valuable copyrights. Accordingly, the next few years will witness another round of
aggressive lobbying by the film, music, and publishing industries to extend the
terms of already-existing works. These industries, and a number of prominent
scholars, claim that when works enter the public domain bad things will happen
to them. They worry that works in the public domain will be underused, overused,
or tarnished in ways that will undermine the works’ cultural and economic value.
Although the validity of their assertions turn on empirically testable hypotheses,
very little effort has been made to study them.  
This Article attempts to fill that gap by studying the market for audiobook
recordings of bestselling novels. Data from our research, including a novel
human subjects experiment, suggest that the claims about the public domain are
suspect. Our data indicate that audio books made from public domain bestsellers
(1913-22) are significantly more available than those made from copyrighted
bestsellers (1923-32). In addition, our experimental protocol suggests that
professionally made recordings of public domain and copyrighted books are of
similar quality. Finally, while a low quality recording seems to lower a listener’s
valuation of the underlying work, our data do not suggest any correlation
between that valuation and legal status of the underlying work. Accordingly, our
research indicates that the significant costs of additional copyright protection for
already-existing works are not justified by the benefits claimed for it.  These
findings will be crucially important to the inevitable congressional and judicial
debate over copyright term extension in the next few years.


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