Copyright no home run for reuse: supply push vs. demand pull theory

11 december 2013

Although material usually comes into the Public Domain seventy years after the author has passed, the changes in the United States copyright system in the last fifty years (adherence to international treaties) make it possible to have 20th century material in the public domain. Such is the case for all issues of Baseball Digest printed before 1 January 1964. The magazine, which still exists today, failed to file an extension for the copyright on the magazine with the appropriate agencies. 

This fact provides the perfect premise to measure the level of reuse after digitisation in context with (the lack of) copyright protection. It has always been assumed that copyright protection promotes innovation of works, however, the theory could never be proven (to the contrary) because we have no way of measuring the difference innovation based on similar copyright protected works and non-copyright protected works. Until now.

Abhishek Nagaraj from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) did hard work on such calculations for the Baseball Digest case, which you can read about here. He calculated that the information in the issues of the magazine digitised by the Google Books project and used on Wikipedia influenced the page views immensely. This delivers quantifiable proof for the ‘demand pull’ theory of reuse of copyrighted material.

“In terms of internet traffic, investigation reveals that the number of page views to the Out-of-Copyright page increased by about 72 visitors per month (or 121%) between December 2008 and 2012, while it increased by only about 5 visitors per month (or 23%) for the In-Copyright page. While different player popularity levels could in theory be one explanation for the difference in this case, the statistical analysis isolates the role of copyright in establishing these patterns.” 

Baseball Digest, September 1948 – Public Domain (source: Wikipedia)

Kennisland supports this evidence with the projects it is involved in. Video sharing platform showed an incredible increase in reach in 2012 where 0,014% of the total collection of the Dutch Institute for Sound and Vision overshadowed the rest of the collection in terms of reach by just openly sharing media. The National Archives of the Netherlands have similar experiences when sharing their media files for reuse with a wide audience.

Push or pull, one can argue both ways

Copyright came about in the 19th century to protect makers from others running wild and becoming rich of the maker’s creativity. Because production methods and consumption patterns have changed immensely since then, it is interesting to look at the effect of copyright protection on creating new material. Assuming that creators build on older material for their work, how does the protection of works hold back the reuse of the older works, and as a consequence creativity as a whole? Economists have created two contradictory theories, called ‘supply push’ logic and ‘demand pull’ logic. The research done by Nagaraj suggests that the demand pull theory is the winner.

Supply push theory
Because work A has copyright protection, and work B does not, work A is reused extensively because the market (publisher for example) has an incentive to keep investing in the publication of work A. However, since work B does not hold such an incentive it is soon forgotten. This theory has lost some of its weight since the investment necessary for work A has diminished severely since the rise of online publication methods.

Demand pull theory
Because work A is copyright protected it is not allowed to reuse the work within explicit permission of the rights holder, which makes things difficult. Work B, however, is free to use and share which builds to its fame and will have derivative works build upon it. 

The images in the Baseball Digest that were copyright protected were not reused for two reasons. First, because Wikipedia does not allow non-open licensed images on its site. Second, because it would be illegal without explicit permission of the rights holders. Meanwhile, the photos that are out-of-copyright were used a lot and resulted in the pageview increase mentioned above. In other words, the situation sketched by the demand pull theory.

Enable reuse and hit the home run

The monetary value of keeping copyright on copies of Baseball Digest from the forties, fifties and sixties, especially in the basement of some office, is next to none. Making them available however, has several advantages including more common knowledge, creative reuse (obviously) and publicity for the creators.

With this in mind, the copyright protection currently in place in the United States, which resembles the European system (70 years after the death of the author, or 70 years after publication) seems very long to say the least. As Nagaraj concludes “Should we reexamine the extent of copyright given the digital nature of modern content production and distribution? In the light of this paper, the answer seems to be firmly in the affirmative.”

For the time being until we have reformed copyright, there is another option: Creative Commons licenses, CC0 and Public Domain Mark. These are ways on how you as a rights holder can control what you allow others to do with your work. Make them available for reuse, and regarding the demand pull theory: that is when you hit the home run for creativity and knowledge.


Lisette Kalshoven

Deze tekst heeft een Creative Commons Naamsvermelding-licentie (CC BY) en is gekopieerd van de Kennisland-website. Ga voor de volledige versie met afbeeldingen, streamers en noten naar

This text has a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) and has been copied from the Kennisland website. For a full version with images, streamers and notes go to