Copyrights as Incentives: Did We Just Imagine That?

Diane Leenheer Zimmerman


The most widely accepted explanation of why we need copyright is that it provides authors with the necessary economic incentive to create. This incentive story has largely gone unchallenged, and has been used to justify lengthening and strengthening the legal protections for expressive works. This Article points out, however, that the empirical foundation for the copyright-as-incentive story is seriously suspect. It fails to account for the economic conditions under which most art, literature and other expressive works are produced, and it contravenes the insights provided over the last forty years or so by psychologists interested in creativity and by behavioral economists. Empirical research has shown that intrinsic factors are much more important determinants of participation in creative work than such extrinsic ones as monetary reward. In fact, evidence exists that the promise of extrinsic rewards such as money can actually be detrimental to the creative impulse. This is not to say that concern with economic rewards should play no role in a legal regime designed to encourage the creative process. But, at a minimum, this Article suggests both that copyright scholars (and possibly patent ones as well) need to develop a far more nuanced understanding of why people produce what they do, and that a satisfactory legal regime to promote intellectual property creation and dissemination can afford to be far less concerned than it presently is with ensuring that authors and copyright owners can extract every bit of available profit from their works.

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