May 31, 2007
It has been almost two months since either Jagdish or I posted anything. We both apologize. I've been working on two things -- the final edits on the fifth edition of Law and Economics, which will be out in August, and the wedding of our older son and his beautiful bride. I'm in the home stretch of the page proofs of the former, and the newlyweds are on their honeymoon. So, back to blogging.
This morning's New York Times "Economic Scene" column is by Hal R. Varian: "Copyrights That No One Knows About Don't Help Anyone," available here. Professor Varian notes that the transaction costs of discovering whether a given work is under copyright protection are not insignificant. This is, in large part, the problem of "orphan works," expressive works that may be under copyright protection but whose holder is not evident. A sensible fear among those who might make use of expressive works whose holder is not evident is that the owner will emerge from the mist and demand compensation for infringement (which may amount to $150,000 per incident). In 2006 the U.S. Copyright Office proposed a prudent solution to the problem of orphan works: after a "diligent search" for the owner, the unauthorized user could make use of the work with proper attribution. If the legitimate copyright holder were to emerge later, he or she could not demand the withdrawal of the unauthorized user's work and might be able to collect "reasonable damages." Clearly, legislation like this, or shorter copyright protection periods (current protection is for the author's life plus 70 years), or a comprehensive registry could greatly reduce the transaction costs to subsequent users of copyrighted material. There is no particular reason for these (or other) solutions to be mutually exclusive. But the appropriate or optimal mix among these solutions is not self-evident. Highly recommended.