Dropbox: Effects of Copyrights on Science. Evidence from the WWII Book Republication Program


Tyler Cowen draws attention to this paper on his blog. The gist of it appears in this excerpt:

“Copyrights establish intellectual property in cultural goods such as music, literature, and science. Existing empirical analyses have found that copyrights can encourage creativity by increasing payments to authors. Yet copyrights also impose important welfare costs, by restricting access to existing content and by generating deadweight loss similar to monopolies for traditional goods. Moreover, copyrights raise the costs that future innovators face when they build on existing work. Through this mechanism, copyrights may discourage future innovation.”

To explore the hypothesis that copyrights may in fact inhibit scientific innovation, the authors examine the effects of a U.S. government program which in 1942 “allowed US publishers to reprint exact copies of enemy-owned science books,” negating their copyrights. This national theft of intellectual property correlates with an increase in American science innovation, the authors find.

One of the fascinating but irreverent inferences one might draw from the paper is that American scientists — just like the rest of us — tend to buy their knowledge on the cheap. But that aside, the inference that innovation per se is a type of social welfare also stands out.

I have long been dubious of intellectual property as a legitimate property type, but as a practical matter I’m at a loss to understand how an economy might function without it. It seems to me that public policy should encourage some level of open source development of human knowledge. Perhaps, too, copyrights and patents might usefully be made to expire sooner. But on the whole, I think we will have to wait until all of humanity is much wealthier to be able to declare an end to restrictive rights in intellectual property.

5 thoughts on “Dropbox: Effects of Copyrights on Science. Evidence from the WWII Book Republication Program

  1. As someone who worked his entire life in a field that is partially dependent upon intellectual property I can say that if you compare it to other property rights such as land, the differences are not that great.

    If I own a piece of property, it is mine in perpetuity until I or my heirs dispose of it. That also means no one can profit from it or by its location, even if it might prevent others from profiting in its vicinity. And any free market capitalist worth his weight would never say that you have to relinquish those rights in the interest of science or because I’ve owned it long enough, or I did not use it to its capacity. Eminent domain is the rule that, by its very existence, demonstrates the value we place on private property. That is, we make it difficult to take someone’s property unless it is for the common good and then compensation needs to be fair.

    Yet, that does not slow our progress much and does provide the classic capitalist bolster against communal property.

    True there are exceptions, but in the main, the loss of property rights, physical or intellectual, without compensation is pretty much against our economic system.

    In the cases of valuable scientific information, this can be released with just compensation since you are taking someones creative and intellectual work. Yes, this increases the cost of subsequent research, but that does not justify confiscating my property without payment.

    Abuse? Sure. The most impactful abuses are by the pharmaceutical companies who extend patents by making insignificant changes to existing products.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What do you make of the observation that real property and intellectual property have different characteristics? For example, land takes up space; ideas do not. Land doesn’t multiply and evolve; ideas do. And so on.

      One might argue that contractual rights should be defined differently for real and intellectual property based on these differences in characteristics. It makes sense, for example, for ownership rights in land to be permanent, once established, because land is permanent. It doesn’t necessarily make sense for ownership rights in an idea to be permanent, because ideas, once communicated, have no permanent form (imagine trying to enforce your ownership of the rights to the concept of a lever, for example).


      1. There are limitations on patents and copyrights. Which is fine.

        Land can stay in families for long times. Considering that land is a fixed quantity perhaps this is not such a good idea. Theoretically, a relative handful of wealthy families could own all the livable and arable land.

        In addition, just as the patent for the lever would have expired centuries ago, it looks like land near sea level may “expire” in many areas in the next century or less.

        The real question is whether any property should remain in a family forever, or at least for generations well beyond the original owners and producers. Is that in the best interests of anyone, other than the heirs?

        But like a debate about angels and pins, this won’t be on any agenda soon. Ownership of property, intellectual or real, is a sacrosanct part of capitalism. It is the driving force for innovation, creativity and production.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. RE: “Ownership of property, intellectual or real, is a sacrosanct part of capitalism. It is the driving force for innovation, creativity and production.”

        That’s the exact proposition which the paper questions. Rights in intellectual property can, in fact, inhibit innovation, creativity and production.

        An interesting conundrum.

        Liked by 1 person

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