Rufus Pollack, a Cambridge economist, has published an interesting paper in which he estimates the optimal length of copyright. Turns out it’s about fifteen years — pretty close to the fourteen favoured by the guys who wrote the US Constitution. The Abstract of the paper reads:
The optimal level for copyright has been a matter for extensive debate over the last decade. This paper contributes several new results on this issue divided into two parts. In the first, a parsimonious theoretical model is used to prove several novel propositions about the optimal level of protection. Specifically, we demonstrate that (a) optimal copyright falls as the costs of production go down (for example as a result of digitization) and that (b) the optimal level of copyright will, in general, fall over time. The second part of the paper focuses on the specific case of copyright term. Using a simple model we characterise optimal term as a function of a few key parameters. We estimate this function using a combination of new and existing data on recordings and books and find an optimal term of around fifteen years. This is substantially shorter than any current copyright term and implies that existing copyright terms are too long.