Just published: Copy This Book! What Data Tells Us about Copyright and the Public Good

CREATe Fellow and Law Professor at the University of Illinois, Paul Heald presents his new book, looking at the state of copyright in the twenty-first century

CREATe saw it first! 

Much of the data collected in Copy This Book!: What Data Tells Us about Copyright and the Public Good (Stanford University Press, 2020) was presented first in Glasgow. Some chapters, like the code-busting calculation of the value of public domain photos on Wikipedia, were directly supported by CREATe. But Glasgow hasn’t seen it all! Copy This Book! is filled with new anecdotes and amusing illustrations unfit for academic presentations – a Bill Bryson-inspired book about copyright.

The overall theme of the book can be seen in this fanciful graph, which depicts the relationship of copyright protection to creativity and price using imaginary—but illustrative– figures:

These curves capture an important theme of the Copy This Book! 

Think of the “Level of Copyright Protection” on the y-axis as the knob on a stereo speaker. The more you twist to the right, the louder (stronger) the level of legal protection gets. And, no, you cannot turn it up to 11 (or even 10—I had a little trouble with the graph).

As you can see, as the level of copyright protection for creative works initially rises, the number of works created also rises. Authors and musicians are presumably stimulated by the ability to recoup the cost of their creative investments and hopefully turn a profit.  Certainly, I would never have written my novel, Raggedyland, in the absence of copyright protection.

Not surprisingly, price also rises, at least for the most popular works in a particular genre. 

But at some point, creativity drops off. Too much protection stifles the emergence of follow-on creation.  As owners are granted enlarged powers to enjoin other creators and charge them licensing fees, potential future works are choked off. Most critically, the long term of copyright makes works disappear as they drop out of print and are only revived when they fall into the public domain.

What’s the magic level of optimal protection? No one really knows, especially since the life cycles of books, song, music, and software (all governed by the same basic rules) vary so substantially. The empirical story told by Copy This Book!, however, makes a strong argument that we are presently on the downside of the creativity curve due to changes made to copyright law in the last 50 years. 

No spoilers! Copy This Book! tells the story of modern copyright by collecting data on the availability of books on Amazon, the use of public domain music in movies, the value of public domain photos on Wikipedia, and the plight of orphan works (like the famous photo of men eating lunch on a steel beam over the Manhattan skyline). Even porn parodies movies have something to teach about copyright.

Order or find out more about the book here: Waterstones & Amazon.

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