Copyright theory versus copyright law
Jan 18, 2012
3 minute read

In honor of the SOPA blackout, here are some thoughts on copyright law. But first, a brief detour into murder law.

There are a positive number of murders each year. If we put more resources into investigating and prosecuting murders, there would be fewer murders. Nevertheless, it is not at all clear that we are spending too little on murder. The optimal number of murders is positive, not zero. The best policy with respect to murder is to try to maximize the net benefits of the policy, not to minimize murders.

Suppose a new technology were introduced that made it easy to get away with murder (e.g., David Friedman’s plan for Murder Incorporated). This technology makes it extremely costly, though, say, not impossible, to stop murders from occurring. What happens to the optimal amount of murder enforcement? The amount that must be spent to deter each murder has gone up, so the price of deterrence has gone up. Consequently, society should aim to deter fewer murders. Under some extreme circumstances, we might even be better off if murder were legalized (and if people were advised to just be more polite to each other).

Similarly, whatever your prior belief about copyright enforcement, the Internet has made it easier to get away with copyright infringement. The amount that must be spent to deter each instance of copyright infringement has increased. Consequently, society should aim to deter fewer instances of copyright infringement, not more instances as SOPA supporters advocate.

In fact, the cost of deterrence has increased so much that we should begin to rethink copyright law. We could increase the benefits of deterrence if we targeted only high-value infringements. This means that we should shorten the term of copyright, since high-value IP tends to be newer IP (in fact, copyright terms have increased in recent decades, a move in the wrong direction). We might consider expanding “fair use” copyright exemptions to include more non-commercial uses, since commercial infringements are more likely to diminish the value of a copyright. Most importantly, we should withdraw public resources from the enforcement of IP violations. Private enforcement through the tort system has a built-in safety valve: when the cost of enforcement rises, people will do less of it. But the criminal system is essentially a public subsidy for enforcement; no wonder that pro-copyright factions are attempting to criminalize copyright infringement through SOPA and other legislation.

The bottom line is that recent expansions of copyright terms and enforcement powers get the comparative statics exactly backwards. In an age of costly enforcement, it’s time to give up, at least at the margin, on copyright. And at the margin, content creators should just be more polite to content consumers.