Virginia Postrel on Why Robert Frost's Copyright Has Miles to Go Before It Sleeps.


Former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel (Reason archive here) has a great column up at Bloomberg about copyright law and how it's totally lost its way. The short version of the article is this: "A copyright isn't supposed to be a reward. It's supposed to be an incentive."

Read the whole thing for a fascinating meditation on the copyright history of Robert Frost's fascinating meditation on mortality, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening."


Just as an effective emissions-trading system depends on getting right the exact number of permits and total amount of emissions, so a good copyright system depends on setting the right terms, limits on fair use and enforcement mechanisms.

"If copyright is weak, then it will provide little incentive to create," [Mercatus Center scholar Jerry] Brito writes. "But if it is too strong, then it will limit the public's ability to enjoy and build on creative works, which after all is the reason why we have copyright in the first place."

Striking that balance is tricky, even without political pressure. And lawmakers have shown little interest in trying to reason out the optimal solution. Instead of balancing the interests of consumers and future producers with financial incentives to create new works today, copyright has become an expanding monopoly privilege for well-connected industries.

Read the whole thing.

Watch this great recent Reason TV interview about copyright:


NEXT: Two AZ Officers Resign Over Use of Chokehold on Handcuffed Prisoner

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Alt alt-text: Robert Frost, Vampire Hunter

  2. I’d rather see Virginia Postrel, Vampire Hunter! But keep the axe, of course.

    1. Isn’t a rapier more her style? Or maybe one of those combat tomahawks.

      1. As a libertarian, the sword cane is the optimal accessory for your monocle, top hat, and spats.


  3. “Striking that balance is tricky, even without political pressure.”

    Um, isn’t the whole process of government pretty, you know, political? Shouldn’t the setting of public policy be political? I agree with Ginnie’s actual policy recommendations, but a lot of people, like Walt Disney, Inc. (corporations are people too, you know) have differing opinions, which, of course, they are free to back up with tens of millions of dollars in political spending. Why do libertarians argue so passionately for the right of the rich and powerful to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the political process, and then claim that public policy ought to be made by unelected elites?

    1. “Why won’t anyone answer my loaded, bullshit questions?”

      1. “Why won’t this rash go away, no matter how much I scratch it?”

    2. That’s a lot of straw men in one rambling, incoherent paragraph.

  4. it will limit the public’s ability to enjoy and build on creative works, which after all is the reason why we have copyright in the first place

    Didn’t RTFA, but since copyrights are a property rights mechanism over intellectual properly, they in no way enhance the “public’s ability”. They exist solely to limit the “public’s ability”.

    1. Much the same way that stuff not being free “limits your access” to it.

      1. Yes, but the statement is that the limitation only occurs when copyright is “too strong”. This is false. The mere existence of copyrights are a limitation, as you point out.

    2. No, the theory behind copyrights is that public’s ability to enjoy creative works is dependent on creative works existing. To the extent that copyrights mitigate a free rider issue that might make the creation of works uneconomical, they are enhancing the ability of the public to enjoy creative works, indirectly.

      1. Um no, the theory behind copyrights is

        To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times …

        IOW to expand the public domain, by granting a limited monopoly, to incentivize creation of said works.

  5. “A copyright isn’t supposed to be a reward. It’s supposed to be an incentive.”

    Isn’t a reward an incentive to do something? Where’s RC Dean?

    1. Ya. That summary makes no sense.

    2. Actually, I was admiring the distinction she draws there.

      Not every reward is an incentive. Rewards known in advance and tied to particular results are incentives.

      Example: extending copyright periods for pre-existing works is not an incentive, but is a pure reward. It may be an incentive for current content creators, but only if it actually changes their behavior (which I doubt).

      1. Okay, I see where you’re going there.

  6. The five saddest words in the English language:

    “Former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel”

    1. Those cheapskate Koch brothers thought they could save a few bucks by hiring an “editor” off some crappy Prague alt-weekly.

    Ah, let’s look at some clips…
    “He will not see me stopping here, to watch his woods fill up with snow…”
    Hey, Frosty! You want some snow, man?
    (Dumps bushels of snow on Frost’s head)
    [same meter] We discussed this, and I said “no.”

  8. Of course those of you trapped in the cosmotarian echo-chamber had a chance to read this via my comment in the moanin’ links

    Needless to say I offered no preview of Shikha’s Bloomberg column.

  9. If they were interested in balance, they would have left the laws alone in the first place. Was there any evidence it wasn’t sufficient?

    Anyone who makes a work and loses copyright on it can still profit from it. He just needs to come up with a revised or authorized edition. Louis L’amour did this. Tolkien even did this. It’s the only reason LOTR was ever released in paperback, some other publisher believed they could publish it legally in paperback, they did, which forced Tolkien to put out an revised, authorized edition.

    1. I prefer the original version of LOTR where Frodo shot first.

      1. Yeah, I don’t think Bored of the Rings was the original.

  10. That guy seems to be a tad bnit full of himself.

  11. “If copyright is weak, then it will provide little incentive to create.”

    Well, yes. But that evades the question of whether or not creation will exist without the incentive of copyright.

    I mean, without copyright, by what incentive would Borodin, Brahms, Bach, Ockheghem, or Hildegard von Bingen created their works?

    1. I don’t know that people are going to like an answer of “rely on patronage”. Though with Kickstarter, that’s a little more feasible.

      1. since when do libertarians care about what people ‘like’

  12. Robert Frost’s Copyright maybe a huge property

  13. Where’s the lady with the rifle?

  14. Nicest chat and chat Iraqi entertaining Adject all over the world

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.