A Five Year Copyright Term?

I’ve been wondering for the last week or so, what would happen if the copyright term was lowered to 5 years. Under current law, copyrights last potentially indefinitely. The stated goal of the constitution is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;” Article 1 Section 8.

Probably the first question that comes to mind when thinking about such a short term for copyright is: Would their still be money in the copyright industries? Let’s look at four major industries that depend on copyright: Movies, Books, Songs, Software. From everything I’ve heard, all of these industries make at least 90% of their profit within the first couple years of release. So, the worst case scenario is that profits would drop by 10%. I doubt a drop of that much would even be noticeable to the general public, and that’s in the worst case. The copyright industries certainly wouldn’t come to a screeching halt.

Would there be a breakdown at any point in the chain of production to consumption? No, I don’t think so. Every good artist, actor, writer, programmer, and musician that I’ve ever heard speak about money have said that they would keep doing what they do even if they didn’t make any money on it. That’s not to say that they won’t make any money on it, remember worse case is that they would make 10% less on average. Producers, editors, sound engineers, and so on will still have work to do and money to be made. Bookstores, movie theaters, music stores, etc… will also have just as much money to earn (if not more). In this respect, everything would remain exactly the same. Consumption of new works would also remain the same. How many people that would normally go see Alien vs. Predator would rather wait five years to see it? How many Harry Potter fans want to wait an extra five years to find out what will happen in book 6? I can’t think of a single instance where waiting five years to get a copyrighted work for free becomes a substitute for consuming it now. The entire chain will remain intact. The industries will do just fine.

So, what would change? Classical works, works that have passed into the public domain, would most likely be available for download for free. Some businesses would even be able to charge for downloads by providing other services, and making the downloads more convenient. Even today book companies make money publishing works that are in the public domain. Like Flatland, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy will remain in print for years to come. EBooks will get a boost. With all of the books that aren’t quite good enough to profitably be printed, there will be a huge market for eBook readers and eBook download services. The same goes for movies and music. The important works will still remain in “print” simply because people love to have tangible copies of works they love. Netflix could charge just as much as it does and make even more money because it wouldn’t have to pay as much for the classical works. Radio stations wouldn’t change. Software wouldn’t change much either except that it would be easier to maintain older works because anyone could do it instead of just the original copyright holders.

I’m out of time for today, but I think the benefits of simplicity, more works in the public domain, and more incentive for companies to create new works instead of relying on older works would far out weigh the small possible drop in overall profitability.

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