Effects of Copyrights on Science

Petra Moser
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In the context of contemporary debates, our findings imply that policies which strengthen copyrights, such as extensions in copyright length, can create enormous welfare costs by discouraging follow-on science, especially among less affluent institutions and scientists.
By Petra Moser and Barbara Biasi
With digitisation, the costs of distributing new research, textbooks, and other types of knowledge has become negligible. In principle, people across the world could now have access to a new research paper within minutes of its publication. Yet copyrights, which grant publishers exclusive rights to content for nearly 100 years, create enormous access costs. These costs are high enough to prevent people outside of universities and wealthy institutions from accessing new research. If the creation of new science and innovation depends on access to existing science, as Scotchmer (1991) has argued, the social costs of increased access costs through copyrights may be immense.

Estimating the effects of copyright, however, is extremely difficult due to two major empirical challenges. First, modern copyright terms are extremely long – nearly 100 years in Europe and the US – so that only exceptionally durable content is observable outside of copyright. Second, modern copyrights typically change in response to lobbying, which makes it nearly impossible to pin down the direction of causality. Lobbying efforts are so powerful that they enter the names of modern laws such as the 1998 US ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’ and the EU’s 2011 ‘Cliff (Richard’s) Law’. 

In a recent paper we exploit a plausibly exogenous change in copyrights (due to WWII) to investigate how copyrights might influence follow-on science (Biasi and Moser 2018).

Read the full article as published in VoxEU.

Petra Moser is an Associate Professor of Economics.