James Boyle: A natural experiment: Do we want 'faith-based' IP Policy?
JamesJames Boyle © 2004 Published: FT Online November 22 2004 17:34 | Last updated: November 22 2004 17:34. This work is made available by me under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons License

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If the European Database Directive were a drug, the government would be pulling it from the market until its efficacy and harmfulness could be reassessed."

Imagine a process of reviewing prescription drugs which goes like this: representatives from the drug company come to the regulators and argue that their drug works well and should be approved. They have no evidence of this beyond a few anecdotes about people who want to take it and perhaps some very simple models of how the drug might affect the human body. The drug is approved. No trials, no empirical evidence of any kind, no follow-up. Or imagine a process of making environmental regulations in which there were no data, and no attempts to gather data, about the effects of the particular pollutants being studied. Even the harshest critics of drug regulation or environmental regulation would admit we generally do better than this. But this is often the way we make intellectual property policy.

So how do we decide the ground-rules of the information age? Representatives of interested industries come to regulators and ask for another heaping slice of monopoly rent in the form of an intellectual property right. They have doom-laden predictions, they have anecdotes, carefully selected to pluck the heartstrings of legislators, they have celebrities who testify - often incoherently, but with palpable charisma - and they have very, very simple economic models. The basic economic model here is If you give me a larger right, I will have a larger incentive to innovate. Thus the bigger the rights, the more innovation we will get. Right?" Well, not exactly. Even without data, the models are obviously flawed - copyrighting the alphabet will not produce more books, patenting E=MC2 will not yield more scientific innovation. Intellectual property creates barriers to, as well as incentives towards, innovation. Clearly the more is better" argument has limits. Extensions of rights can help or hurt, but without economic evidence beforehand and review afterwards, we will never know. In the absence of evidence on either side, the presumption should obviously still be against creating a new legalised monopoly, but still the empirical emptiness of the debates is frustrating.

This makes the occasion where there actually is some evidence a time for celebration. What we really need is a test case where one country adopts the proposed new intellectual property right and another does not, and we can assess how they are both doing after a number of years.

There is such a case. It is the database right." Europe adopted a Database Directive in 1996 which both gave a high level of copyright protection to databases, and conferred a new sui generis" database right even on unoriginal compilations of facts. In the United States, by contrast, in a 1991 case called Feist, the Supreme Court made it clear that unoriginal compilations of facts are not copyrightable. (The case is not as revolutionary as it is claimed to be. Most of the appeals courts in the United States had long held this to be the case. In fact, a tenet of the US intellectual property system is that neither facts nor ideas can be owned.) Since 1991 the U.S. Congress has managed to resist frenzied attempts by a few database companies to create a special database right over facts. Interestingly, apart from academics, scientists and civil libertarians, many database companies, and even those well-known communist property-haters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, oppose the creation of such a right. They believe that database providers can adequately protect themselves with contracts, technical means such as passwords, can rely on providing tied services and so on. Moreover, they argue that strong database protection may make it harder to generate databases in the first place; the facts you need may be locked up. The pressure to create a new right continues, however, aided by the cries that US must harmonise" with Europe. So here we have our natural experiment. Presumably the government economists are hard at work both in the US and the EU, seeing if the right actually worked? Umm.... No.

Despite the fact that the European Commission has a legal obligation to review the Database Directive for its effects on competition (they are three years late in issuing their report) no attention appears to be being paid to the actual evidence of whether the Directive helps or hurts in the EU, or whether the database industry in the US has collapsed or flourished. That is a shame, because the evidence is there, and it is fairly shocking.

Despite the fact that the European Commission has a legal obligation to review the Database Directive for its effects on competition (they are three years late in issuing their report) no attention appears to be being paid to the actual evidence of whether the Directive helps or hurts in the EU"

Intellectual property rights are a form of state-created monopoly and the general tendency of monopolies," as Macaulay pointed out, is to make things dear, to make them scarce, and to make them bad." Monopolies are an evil, but they must sometimes be accepted when they are necessary to the production of some good, some particular social goal. In this case, the evil" is obviously going to be an increase in price of databases, and the legal ability to exclude competitors from their use - that, after all is the point of granting the new right. The good" is that we are supposed to get lots of new databases, databases that we would not have had but for the existence of the database right.

If the database right were working, we would expect positive answers to three crucial questions. First, has the European database industry's rate of growth increased since 1996, while the US database industry has languished? (The drop off in the US database industry ought to be particularly severe after 1991 if the proponents of database protection are correct; they argued the Feist case was a change in current law and a great surprise to the industry.)

Second, are the principal beneficiaries of the database right in Europe producing databases they would not have produced otherwise? Obviously if a society is handing over a database right for a database that would have been created anyway, it is overpaying - needlessly increasing prices for consumers and burdens for competitors. This goes to the design of the right - has it been crafted too broadly, so that it is not being targeted to those areas where it is needed to encourage innovation?

Third, and this one is harder to judge, is the right promoting innovation and competition rather than stifling it? For example, if the existence of the right allowed a one-time surge of newcomers to the market who then to use their rights to discourage new entrants, or if we promoted some increase in databases but made scientific aggregation of large amounts of data harder overall, then the database right might actually be stifling the innovation it is designed to foment.

Those are the three questions that any review of the Database Directive must answer. But we have preliminary answers to those three questions and they are either strongly negative or extremely doubtful.

Database growth rates have gone back to pre-Directive levels, while the anti-competitive costs of database protection are now a permanent fixture of the European landscape. The US, by contrast, gets a nice steady growth rate in databases without paying the monopoly cost."

Are database rights necessary for a thriving database industry? The answer is a clear no." In the United States, the database industry has grown more than 25-fold since 1979 and - contrary to those who paint the Feist case as a revolution - for that entire period, in most of the United States, it was clear that unoriginal databases were not covered by copyright. The figures are even more interesting in the legal database market. The two major proponents of database protection in the United States are Reed Elsevier, the owner of Lexis, and Thomson Publishing, the owner of Westlaw. Fascinatingly, both companies made their key acquisitions in the US legal database market after the Feist decision, at which point no one could have thought unoriginal databases were copyrightable. This seems to be some evidence that they believe they could make money even without a database right. How? In the old-fashioned way: competing on features, accuracy, tied services, making users pay for entry to the database and so on.

If those companies believed there were profits to be made, they were right. Jason Gelman, one of our students, points out in a recent paper that Thomson's Legal Regulatory division had a profit margin of over 26% for the first quarter of 2004. Reed Elsevier's 2003 profit margin for LexisNexis was 22.8%. Both profit margins were significantly higher than the company average and both are earned primarily in the $6 billion US legal database market, a market which is thriving without strong intellectual property protection over databases. (First rule of thumb for regulators: when someone with a profit margin over 20% asks you for additional monopoly protection, pause before agreeing.)

What about Europe? There is some good news for the proponents of database protection. As Hugenholtz, Maurer, and Onsrud point out in a nice article in Science Magazine, there was a sharp, one-time spike in numbers of companies entering the European database market immediately following the implementation of the Directive in member states. Yet their work, and Across Two Worlds," a fascinating study by Maurer, suggests that the rate of entry then falls back to levels similar to those before the Directive. Maurer's analysis shows that the attrition rate is also very high in some European markets in the period following the passage of the Directive - even with the new right, many companies drop out.

At the end of the day, the British database industry - the strongest performer in Europe - adds about 200 databases in the three years immediately after the implementation of the Directive. In France there is little net change in the number of databases and the number of providers falls sharply. In Germany, the industry added nearly 300 databases immediately following the Directive - a remarkable surge - about 200 of which rapidly disappeared. During the same period the US industry adds about 900 databases. Bottom line? Europe's industry did get a one-time boost, and some of those firms have stayed in the market; that is a benefit, though a costly one. But database growth rates have gone back to pre-Directive levels, while the anti-competitive costs of database protection are now a permanent fixture of the European landscape. The US, by contrast, gets a nice steady growth rate in databases without paying the monopoly cost. (Second rule of thumb for regulators: Do no harm! Do not create rights without strong evidence that the incentive effect is worth the anti-competitive cost.)

Now the second question. Is the Database Directive encouraging the production of databases we would not have got otherwise? Here the evidence is clear and disturbing. Again, Hugenholtz et al, point out that the majority of cases brought under the Directive have been about databases that would have been created anyway - telephone numbers, television schedules, concert times. A review of more recent cases reveals the same pattern. These databases are inevitably generated by the operation of the business in question and cannot be independently compiled by a competitor. The database right simply serves to limit competition in the provision of the information. Last week, the European Court of Justice implicitly underscored this point in a series of cases concerning football scores, horse-racing results and so on. Rejecting a stunningly protectionist and one-sided opinion from its Advocate General, the court ruled that the mere running of a business which generates data does not count as substantial investment" enough to trigger the database right. It would be nice to think that this is the beginning of some scepticism about the reach of the Directive, scepticism that might even penetrate the Commission's review of the Directive's anti-competitive effects. Yet the Court provides little discussion for the economic reasons behind its interpretation; the analysis is merely semantic and definitional, a sharp contrast to its competition decisions.

So what kinds of databases are being generated by this bold new right? The answer is somewhere between bathos and pathos. Here are some of the wonderful databases" that people found it worthwhile litigating over: A website, consisting of a collection of 259 hyper-links to parenting resources," a collection of poems, an assortment of advertisements, headings referring to local news, charts of popular music. The sad list goes on and on. The European Commission might ask itself whether these are really the kind of databases" which we need a legal monopoly to encourage, and that we want to tie up judicial resources protecting. The point that many more such factual resources can be found online in the United States without such protection, also seems worthy of note. At very least, the evidence indicates that the right is drawn much too broadly and triggered too easily in ways that are profoundly anti-competitive.

Finally, is the database right encouraging scientific innovation or hurting it? Here the evidence is merely suggestive. Scientists have claimed that the European database right, together with the perverse failure of European governments to take advantage of the limited scientific research exceptions allowed by the Directive, have made it much harder to aggregate data, to replicate studies, and to judge published articles. In fact, academic scientific bodies have been among the strongest critics of database protection. But negative evidence, by its nature, is hard to produce; show me the science that did not get done!" Certainly, both US science and commerce have benefited extraordinarily from the openness of US data policy. This is an issue I will deal with in a later column.

I was not always opposed to intellectual property rights over data. Indeed, in a book written before the enactment of the Database Directive, I said that there was a respectable economic argument that such protection might be warranted and that we needed research on the issue. Unfortunately, Europe got the property right without the research. The facts are now in. If the European Database Directive were a drug, the government would be pulling it from the market until its efficacy and harmfulness could be reassessed. At the very least, the Commission needs a detailed empirical review of the Directive's effects, and needs to adjust the Directive's definitions and to fine-tune its limitations. But there is a second lesson. There is more discussion of the empirical economic effects of the Database Directive in this 2000 word column than there is in the 600 page review of the effects of the Directive that the European Commission paid a private company to conduct. That is a scandal. And it is a scandal that is altogether typical of the way we make intellectual property policy. President Bush is not the only one to make faith-based" decisions.

The writer is William Neal Reynolds Professor of Law at Duke Law School, a board member of Creative Commons and the co-founder of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain