Do bad things happen when works enter the Public Domain?
New research shows that the traditional arguments for copyright extension are as flawed as we always suspected. Theodora Middleton explores the terrible things which are meant to happen when work enters the Public Domain.
Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Leo Reynolds
Copyright is generally defended in terms of the stimulus it gives to creative production: what motivation would anyone have to do anything ever if they don’t get decades of ownership afterwards? But then how do you justify the continual increase in copyright terms which has taken place over the last century, and applies retrospectively to works made in the past? Extending their copyright protection can’t stimulate their production – they’ve already been made!
Three main arguments are advanced: that works which fall into the public domain will be under-exploited, because there will be no incentive to produce new works; that they will be over-exploited, with too many people using them and therefore reducing their worth; and that they will be tarnished, by being reproduced in low quality ways or associated with undesirable things.
All three arguments, it seems, are nonsense. A new research paper, “Do Bad Things Happen When Works Enter the Public Domain?:Empirical Tests of Copyright Term Extension”, has taken the example of audiobook reproductions of public domain and copyrighted works, and investigated the three potential types of damage that are thought to occur in the transition to public domain status:
Our data suggest that the three principal arguments in favor of copyright term extension—under-exploitation, over-exploitation, and tarnishment—are unsupported There seems little reason to fear that once works fall into the public domain, their value will be substantially reduced based on the amount or manner in which they are used. We do not claim that there are no costs to movement into the public domain, but, on the opposite side of the ledger, there are considerable benefits to users of open access to public domain works. We suspect that these benefits dramatically outweigh the costs.
Our data provide almost no support for the arguments made by proponents of copyright term extension that once works fall into the public domain they will be produced in poor quality versions that will undermine their cultural or economic value. Our data indicate no statistically significant difference, for example, between the listeners’ judgments of the quality of professional audiobook readers of copyrighted and public domain texts.
It’s getting to be that time again, when Mickey Mouse gets closer and closer to the public domain — and you know what that means: a debate about copyright term extension. As you know, whenever Mickey is getting close to the public domain, Congress swoops in, at the behest of Disney, and extends copyright.
The results are clear. The so-called “harm” of works falling into the public domain does not appear to exist. Works are still offered (in fact, they’re more available to the public, which we’re told is what copyright is supposed to do), there are still quality works offered, and the works are not overly exploited. So what argument is there left to extend copyright?
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