What's the objectively optimal copyright term?

[Read the post]


Well, if they want to keep extending copyrights because it is making them money and they have a vested interest? Rather than extending the whole thing in a big mess, let’s grant further extensions at say…$1M per year, in blocks of 10 years? That way, if you have enough money to throw at something and have a REAL vested interest in keeping it protected, you can, without screwing everything else? Most works wouldn’t be worth protecting further and would enter the public domain. In addition we could reduce copyright for new items to a sane number of years and then use the same extension system.


The very idea that 20 extra years of copyright protection that begins 50 years after you are dead would promote the creation of more works is absurd.

When it comes to the “natural rights” argument that the creator should have infinite or near infinite rights over their creations, I like to point out that the copyright holder’s rights are expressly taken from the copyowner’s rights. They are limitations on what you or I can do with our legally owned copies…


What I’d like to see is having it depend on who the copyright holder is. Natural person? Life plus 20 maybe. Corporation? Ehhh, give them 10 years. Disney would never allow it, but it kind of makes sense to me.


Hell, just requiring a free application for extension of copyright would make a difference - there’s so much work that isn’t being commercially exploited, it’s orphaned work (or has an owner with no incentive to do anything with it), work that would actually have some value if it was within the public domain.

Really any extension beyond life+20, even when you’re still alive and working, doesn’t provide much incentive if you’re not a corporation. Even for the vanishingly tiny number of works that would still have commercial value, how many artists are motivated by the desire to provide for their great-grandchildren?

1 Like

Life - 20


“You’ve had your twenty years. Time to die. Remember, it’s for the greater good. The public domain salutes you.”


But doesn’t that get us into a situation where only the really rich and large corporations can afford copyright protections for their work? At least now you can at least plausible make the argument that it is somewhat even handed in terms of how its administered. I get the same copyright protections that the Disney corporation does. If it becomes a pay for play system, how the hell am I supposed to drum up that much cash to extend my copyright by a decade…

I’d be happy with going back to the original constitutional term, with maybe access to one extension across the board for everyone.

1 Like

I don’t think it is necessary to make the renewal fee high. There are so many orphan works are works that the owner doesn’t think are worth anything but are out of print. But I think that if the default copyright length were 30 years or so and could be renewed every decade or so for even a fairly low that a lot of these things would be allowed to pass into the public domain.


So what’s the original constitutional term, with respect to the United Kingdom, which is where Tim Hartford is writing from, and which has a more complicated “constitutional” structure than the US?

Even the US Constitution doesn’t specify a length. Just “limited times”.

14 years.


Here is a helpful chart that shows changes over time from the first copyright act in 1790 to the most recent extension (so it’s US specific):

But my big objection to the @Bob_Brinkman was more about the pay to play aspect. The state should act as a neutral arbiter, not a partisan and when you make state protections pay to play, then the state is indeed taking sides with the rich against the rest of us.


Perhaps the extension fee could increase exponentially?

Start small, get bigger as you want to increase the copyright term or the number of extensions. It would only be worth it for the big ticket items, whilst allowing the “little guy” a chance to extend theirs if they wanted and letting everything else fall into the public domain.

Make it like catch and release in fishing.

You can release as many works of art as you like, but you can only apply for copyright extensions of an additional 10 years (beyond a standard 20 years?) three times in total, for your entire body of work.

If you think you have your magnum opus done, you can protect it for 50 years. If not, you get 20 and see how the next one works out.


My alternative ideas:

Idea 1:
Have a graduated system, where the creator has absolute control for maybe 1-5 years, then something like our current fair use for the next 10 or 20, fewer rights (kind of like current CC licenses) for the next 10-20, and finally another few decades of just requiring attribution.

Idea 2:
Copyright extends 20 years past the the most recent subsequent work- So, if I write a novel and nothing else, the copyright lasts 20 years. If 10 years later, I write a sequel, that’s an automatic extension for the original. If I do a regular comic strip or newspaper column, my copyrights expire 20 years after my last installment.

Idea 3:
Something like @Bob_Brinkman suggested, but maybe raise the bar for each extension. First one is free, next 10 years are $10, next 10 are $100, then $1000, $10,000, $100,000 and so on. So, a 30 year copyright would be $110, and a 90 year would be $1,111,110.


In my opinion: life plus 25

I think granting the author artistic and economic control during their lifetime makes a lot of sense.

The extra 25 years should be plenty to complete and exploit a full release (print run, film adaptation, album release, whatever…) of the work and offers some predictability to everyone involved, even including creators’ families.

It should also be enough to minimize any negative effect on the value of the rights while the creator is alive. If the term is too short, then there is always a risk that publishers will try to sit it out.

If your jurisdiction has corporate copyright, then make it 25 years total.

I still don’t like this idea of extended copyright based on ability to pay. It still privileges the rich and corporations over everyone else.


I don’t know what the objectively best copyright term is. But I know for a fact that it’s shorter than Life + x where x>=0.

Corpses don’t play music, paint landscapes, or write novels. Anything longer than life isn’t an incentive to create more. It’s litigation fodder for estate lawyers.


40 years, just like patents (or some other numbermuch less than 70 and longer than 20), so long as licensing isn’t exclusive and is capped as a proportion of gross revenue for “infringers”. Royalties, yes. Monopoly, no.

1 Like

This idea is far from perfect, this system is relatively impractical, it has more than a few flaws, and it still requires a shit ton of flushing out… basically:

Why can’t we just treat copyrights like public property currently in private holding, like a extended lease? In a ideal world I could see copyrighted media/material automatically starting a procedure (maybe through a special court system where a judge both represents the public/advocates for the material and makes the end decision, the current copyright holder would have to argue with evidence for being allowed to continue holding the said copyright in question) that would allow it to be transferred to Public Domain if it had not been used by the current copyright holder to further more artistic creation, advertising, appearances, showings, etc. for a period of say… 8 or 10 years? Just sending out takedown notices or acting as a copyright troll would not count towards use of the media (The obvious exemptions would be if it was still owned by a singular person who was part of its creation or its original creator or as part of a inheritance of either). It seems this might at least deal with the orphaned work or old classics that are still under copyright (personal relevance) but not being used in any means other than to send takedown notices.