Copyright this

Jon Healey correctly points out that the debate over intellectual-property theft is complex because we are often dealing with “non-real properties.” These properties cost nearly nothing to produce, and an infinite number of people can use the same property at the same time. And yet, we still want to treat them as if they were “real” property.

Significantly, some of these non-real properties have major effects on human welfare. Take, for example, the formula for “oral rehydration therapy,” a mixture of salt, sugar and water. Although it could potentially be copyrighted, it has saved more lives in the Third World than almost anything else. The world is lucky that this formula is in the public domain, not copyrighted and subject to use charges that people who need it couldn’t afford.

The present system treats these copyrighted works as a funny kind of real property with no carrying costs, taxes or significant fees. Without carrying costs, copyrights remain in force almost forever - even though, over time, the demand for the copyrighted material can fall to almost nothing. As the demand decreases, the value may remain, but it becomes effectively unavailable to, as the Constitution puts it, “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” Witness all the copyrighted books, scientific journals, audio works and visual works that are out of print or otherwise unavailable because copyright law prevents the new, low-cost methods of distribution from being utilized.


In the scientific field, this has devastating effects on the advancement of human knowledge - which is just the opposite of the intent of copyright law.

As a member of a scientific journal’s editorial board - and as a senior citizen - I see reams of manuscripts that just reinvent the wheel. Because the whole scientific enterprise has become so complex that non-electronic research is effectively impossible, many young scientists don’t know and can’t find out what has already been done from older, copyrighted, paper-based literature. This results in a huge waste of resources. The same can be said for copyrights in creative areas such as music and writing, in which older works with limited distribution could be built upon to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

A solution to determining which works are in the “Mickey Mouse” category of copyrights and which are in the more socially valuable “oral rehydration therapy” class of work is not feasible for a government bureaucracy. However, if all copyrights were taxed at a fixed (but significant) amount per year to maintain the copyright (all registered through the copyright office and searchable), there would be a significant carrying cost and most of the copyrighted material would revert to “public domain” and become available to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” As intellectual property and copyrights become an even more significant part of our economy, and as copyright holders (not necessarily the creators) make claims of “stealing” as though it is real property, it should be taxed. Relative to copyrights’ significance in our economy, the amount of revenue from this source should be in the hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

With a proper tax system, publishers like the L.A. Times or scientific journals may maintain a copyright for only a year or so before letting the content revert to public domain and letting Google and everyone else utilize the material for its small, but socially significant, remaining value. The human enterprise could continue to build on itself in these creative, sustainable and non-resource-consuming ways, with copyrights only applying to a small subset of this enterprise.

It should also be noted that some of the most valuable and significant intellectual property and creative works can’t be copyrighted. For example, Mickey Mouse is copyrighted, but E=MC2 could not have been. Which was truly the more significant creative work?

Dallas Weaver is a scientist and consultant.