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Friday, August 5, 2016

Copyrights Protect the Dead, Not the Innovators

The argument that copyright encourages innovation is simply a pretense for protectionism.

The argument that copyright encourages innovation is simply a pretense for protectionism. Some protection for intellectual property probably does encourage innovation, as the “Tabarrok Curve” illustrates, but the pretense becomes clear when we see copyright repeatedly extended for works already in existence. Walt Disney was long-dead when his copyright to Mickey Mouse was extended. Rumors to the contrary, Walt ain’t coming back no matter how much we incentivize him with a longer copyright.

The latest case in point is last week’s extension of copyright in the European Union for design:

Mid-century design classics, such as Charles Eames chairs, Eileen Gray tables and Arco lamps are set to rocket in price, following EU regulations which came into force this week that extend the copyright on furniture from 25 years to 70 years after the death of a designer.

…Companies can currently sell replica goods providing 25 years has passed from the date the designer died, but the EU ruling – speeded up by the British government – has extended that period to 70 years. Eames died in 1978, so the new protection extends the copyright of the many chairs, tables and clocks he designed until 2048. For items designed jointly with his wife, Ray, the copyright would extend for a further 10 years, as she died in 1988.

Dead people tend not to be very creative so I suspect that the retroactive extension of copyright will not spur much innovation from Eames. The point, of course, is not to spur creativity but to protect the rents of the handful of people whose past designs turned out to have lasting value.

Retroactive extensions of copyright throw the entire reasoning behind copyright into reverse. The incentive argument for copyright would have to run, We don’t have enough designs so we should increase the incentive to produce more. The actual argument for copyright runs – We have lots of popular designs and we need to keep selling them at a high price.

Moreover, if this nonsense were not enough, how is this for a kicker:

Companies which publish design books may have to get numerous licences to reproduce photos because designs have come under copyright.

Hat tip: The excellent Mark Thorson.

This first appeared at Marginal Revolution.

  • Alex Tabarrok is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He blogs at Marginal Revolution with Tyler Cowen.