Back in 1790, the authors of the Constitution of the United States included copyright in the property rights protections provided in the Constitution:
[The Congress shall have Power…] 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
What was the right amount of time in that “limited times” provision? They pulled a copyright length out of thin air: 14 years, with a further 14 years possible if the author were still alive.
Turns out they may have happened on the right number, according to new research from Cambridge Ph.D. student Rufus Pollock. Pollock’s model takes into account incentives to create, the costs of excluding use, all of the aspects of copyright that are important (and frustrating from a policy perspective). He then uses empirical data to estimate optimal copyright length, and he comes up with … 14 years. How ’bout that?
This Ars Technica article on Pollock’s work discusses the political economy underlying the persistent drives to increase copyright length:
Of course, there’s no guarantee that copyright law has anything to do with rationality; as Pollock puts it, “the level of protection is not usually determined by a benevolent and rational policy-maker but rather by lobbying.” The predictable result has been a steady increase in the period of copyright protection during the twentieth century.