Seventeen Famous Economists Weigh in on Copyright: The Role of Theory, Empirics, and Network Effects


The case of Eldred v. Ashcroft, which sought to have the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA, aka Sonny Bono Copyright Act) declared unconstitutional, was recently decided by the Supreme Court. A remarkable group of seventeen economists including five Noble laureates, representing a wide spectrum of opinion in economics, submitted an amicus curie brief in support of Eldred. The economists condemned CTEA on the grounds that the revenues earned during the extension are so heavily discounted that they have almost no value, while the extended protection of aged works creates immediate monopoly deadweight losses and increases the costs of creating new derivative works.

More important, we believe, than the particulars of this case, is the articulation of the economic issues involved in copyright extension. These issues are not fully developed in the brief, nor is the case as one sided as the Eldred economists claimed. First, private ownership of creative works may internalize potentially important externalities with respect to the use of existing works and the creation of derivative works. Second, the Eldred economists neglect the elasticity of the supply of creative works in their analysis, focusing instead solely on the benefits received by authors. Consequently, they may underestimate the potential for additional creativity, which confers benefits immediately. Third, the Eldred economists neglect certain features of copyright law, such as fair use, the distinction between idea and expression, and the parody exemption, which mitigate the costs of copyright. Finally, we present data that counters a common claim that copyright extension so far out in the future can have little effect on creativity. The small fraction of books that have the majority of commercial value when they are new appear to remain valuable for periods of time that are consistent with the expanded term of copyright under CTEA.


Computer Law | Intellectual Property Law | Law and Economics

Date of this Version

September 2004