In praise of evidence-based copyright policy

When I started studying copyright policymaking several years ago, what surprised me most was the the almost complete lack of empirical evidence underlying both existing copyright law and copyright-reform proposals. I’m talking about impartial economic analyses of the effects of copyright. Read pretty much any report, from the U.S. White Paper that led to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to the discussion papers that kicked off Canada’s review of copyright policy back at the turn of the century and you’ll find lots of talk about balancing interests and promoting growth, but very little in the way of quantification by disinterested sources of copyright’s benefits and harms.

Sure, there are many thoughtful philosophical treatises evaluating the justness of copyright, and there are certainly plenty of reports filled with numbers produced by one side or another to justify a partisan position. But studies looking at the societal impacts of copyright? Not as many as there should be, and those that do exist never seem to find their way into government studies proposing copyright reform. The economist in me bristles at the fact.

Which is why it’s so heartening to read today that the British government’s intellectual-property reforms include a declaration that “evidence should drive future policy.”

Be still my heart! For a debate that’s been driven almost entirely by politics and lobbying for almost 300 years, this is a very welcome change of pace.

Glyn Moody highlights the good bits, including the following:

the Government will in future give limited weight in IP policy-making to evidence that is not sufficiently open and transparent in its approach and methodology, and we will make it clear where we are taking this view. IPO will set out guidance in Autumn 2011 on what constitutes open and transparent evidence, in line with professional practice. The Government is conscious that smaller businesses and organisations face particular challenges in assembling evidence and will assess their contributions sympathetically, with the same emphasis on transparency and openness.

Full report here. Anyway, read Glyn Moody’s piece. I’ll likely have more to say when the actual legislation is tabled. And it’ll be interesting to compare the upcoming Canadian legislation to the principles spelled out by the Brits. But for now, three cheers for rational policymaking!

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