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    The Economics of Copyright: Incentives and Rewards (It’s Important to Get them Right)

    • 04.05.2024
    • By hughstephensblog
    Hugh Stephens Blog

    Two years ago, in April 2022, the US Copyright Office (USCO) appointed its first Chief Economist, Dr. Brent Lutes. Many national Intellectual Property Offices have such a position, e.g, UK IPO, IP Australia, EUIPO, and WIPO. (Notably, Canada’s Intellectual Property Office–CIPO–does not). All these positions have broad responsibility for assessing the economics of IP generally, covering patent, trademark, industrial designs as well as copyright. In the US, the Patent and Trademark Office has its own Chief Economist. However, Lutes’ USCO position appears to be the only one related exclusively to assessing the economic impact of copyright. The position sits within the Office of Policy and International Affairs and is composed of a small team of economists, providing the Register of Copyrights, Shira Perlmutter, with policy-relevant research on economic issues related to copyright.

    In an interview conducted last month, Lutes talked about the economic goals of copyright in terms of enhancing social welfare. He noted the goal of copyright is to contribute to the welfare of society by promoting access to creative works, now and in the future, through market based behavioural incentives. The goal of the Office of Chief Economist is to gather more information to inform policy making, such as the geographic distribution of copyright activity or the demographic characteristics of creators. As but one example, is racial or ethnic diversity related to creativity? The economic issues surrounding AI and copyright, both pro and con, is another field of research the USCO will be exploring.

    In addition to finding the right economic levers to stimulate production of creative works, economic studies of copyright also demonstrate the enormous impact copyright-based industries have on national economic welfare. While the impact can depend on what economic multipliers are used and how direct versus indirect benefits are calculated, there is no question that copyright industries in most economies are very significant as job creators and multipliers. For example, IP Australia in its most recent annual report estimates that cultural and creative activity contributes about 6% of Australian GDP annually, with design, fashion, publishing, broadcasting, electronic and digital media and film being the primary industries involved. In the US the figures are even more impressive. According to the International Intellectual Property Alliance, in 2021 (the last year for which statistics are apparently available), core copyright industries in the US, defined as those industries “whose primary purpose is to create, produce, distribute or exhibit copyright materials”, added $1.8 trillion to US GDP, accounting for 7.76% of the economy. Total copyright industries, a definition that includes industries partially dependent on copyright, such as fabric, jewellery or toys and games, account for another trillion USD, even when only a portion of their total value is included in the copyright calculation.

    The UK Intellectual Property Office published its IP survey in 2022, comparing the role of patents, trademark, registered industrial designs and copyright. While copyright industries were on the low side for exports (£4.7 billion as opposed to patents at £120.6 billion, copyright’s “non-financial value-added output” (IP data is not available for the financial industries, thus the description of “non-financial”) trounced that of patent industries by almost 2:1. As with the US IIPA study, the UK report accounted for the degree to which certain industries depend on copyright, categorizing them as core, interdependent, partial or non-dedicated support industries, adjusting the amount of copyright contribution accordingly. Book publishing, for example, is considered a 100% copyright industry and its value is calculated as such, whereas for an industry such as paper manufacturing, only 25% of the value was included in the calculation of copyright benefits. This methodology followed that of the World Intellectual Property Organization, aka WIPO, which also conducts economic studies as well as assists national authorities with their own. Economists are careful people, not prone to exaggeration, and consistent methodology is important to ensure accurate measurement and reporting.

    WIPO worked with the Department of Canadian Heritage to produce a report in 2020 on “The Economic Impact of Canada’s Copyright-Based Industries”. As with other deep dives on the economic benefits of copyright, this study produced similar notable statistics. For example, while many copyright opponents in Canada were deploring the extension of the copyright term of protection in Canada, arguing that the result would be an outflow of royalties to foreign rights-holders because Canada was a net importer of copyrighted materials, the Heritage report established that “Canada has exported more copyright-related services than it has imported, maintaining a trade balance surplus from 2009 ($2.5 billion) to 2019 ($5.6 billion)”. In actual fact, extending the copyright term in Canada brought with it the additional benefit of a reciprocal extended term in many foreign countries for Canadian works, clearly benefiting Canadian rights-holders. The Heritage study went on to document a range of other important outcomes such as employment (over 600,000), contribution to GDP ($95.6 billion) and percentage of GDP (4.9%). All figures are based on 2019 data. No update has been published since. It is just as well that Heritage Canada took the lead in preparing this report since the government department holding lead statutory responsible for copyright in Canada, the mammoth Department of Industry, Science and Economic Development (ISED), unfortunately seems to treat copyright as but a tiny pimple on its elephantine rump.

    While the studies cited above highlight the economic contribution that copyright industries make to national economies in terms of jobs and wealth generation, let us not forget the key point that Dr. Lutes underlined regarding the social welfare contribution of copyright through using market-based incentives to promote and encourage creativity and investment in creative outputs. It is hard, if not impossible, to put a dollar amount on the social welfare benefits of creative expression and cultural sovereignty, but they are immense if incalculable. Without copyright, not only would existing content-based industries be unable to thrive and expand, but the formula to encourage new, original content would be missing.

    Notwithstanding the importance of a robust copyright framework for both economic and social welfare, creators and content-based copyright industries are facing major challenges today. Some are technological, like the emergence of generative AI; some behavioural, such as a wide tolerance, even acceptance, of piracy and free riding. The struggle against piracy is ongoing and protracted, a cat and mouse game. Free riding is what AI developers are doing on the backs of content creators through unauthorized training of AI models on copyrighted content, with resultant legal challenges. There is also the question of whether wholly AI generated works should be accorded copyright protection. As the Copyright Alliance has observed, the Copyright Clause in the US Constitution is premised on the promotion of the “progress of science and useful arts” by protecting for a limited period of time the writings and discoveries of authors and inventors. Given that premise, it should be self-evident that creator incentivization is not applicable to machines, which do not need nor comprehend economic incentives to create.

    Free riding is also what the education sector has been doing in Canada under the specious umbrella of “education fair dealing”, introduced through copyright amendments in 2012 that broadened the scope of fair dealing. Since then, the “education industry” at the public, secondary and post-secondary level has been siphoning off economic value from writers and other creators to the tune to date of over CAD$200 million. Their legalized renunciation of collective reprographic licensing is ostensibly to benefit students but is in fact a transfer of wealth from creators to the bottom line of educational institutions. If a key objective of copyright is to incentivize creation of new content, such as materials used by educational institutions to teach students, then the current interpretation of education fair dealing in Canada upends a key rationale for granting copyright protection in the first place. (As a footnote, I should add that not all arguments in favour of copyright are based solely on economic incentives. There is also the question of natural justice and equity, providing authors with a degree of control over works they have created).

    Since court challenges have unfortunately proven ineffective, the remedy for Canada’s education fair dealing fiasco is for the Government of Canada to amend the Copyright Act so that rightsholders are properly compensated when their works are used in Canada. Both the copyright collective in English Canada, Access Copyright and its Québec counterpart, Copibec, recently called for legal clarification of the nature and extent of educational fair dealing.

    Thorough documentation of the contribution that copyright makes to economic and social welfare helps substantiate the case for adequate legal frameworks, including combatting piracy and ending copyright free riding. Sound economic data are essential to sound policy making. The initiative of the US Copyright Office to appoint a Chief Economist helps to meet these goals and is to be commended.  Should the Canadian Intellectual Property Office ever create such a position, its first task should be to evaluate the full economic and social costs of the current short-sighted interpretation of fair dealing in Canada’s education sector in terms of its negative long-term impact on creativity and cultural sovereignty in the country.

    The Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle may have described economics as the “dismal science”, an oft-quoted remark, but rather than being dismal it is in fact just the opposite; it sheds light on the importance of copyright to maintaining a well-functioning, equitable and culturally rich modern society.

    This article was first published on Hugh Stephens Blog