The Creativity Cliff: Another Reason Extended Copyright Terms Are Not About Authors
Quality of life and creative capacity at the end of life are other reasons to doubt that long copyright terms are important for authors. Ezekiel Emanuel’s “Why I Hope To Die at 75” caused a stir for his views on graceful death and quality of life. Part of his argument is that creativity, on average, diminishes late in life. Those who pursue prolonging life as if they are “immortals” “operate on the assumption that they will be … outliers” such as one of Emanuel’s colleagues who still publishes papers that change policy at 90. “But the fact is that by 75, creativity, originality, and productivity are pretty much gone for the vast, vast majority of us.” (Emanuel picks 75 because that is his trigger age for not fighting death). The article has a graph that indicates truly creative, novel ideas and work decline after the early to mid 60s for most people. Emanuel is quick to point out that there are many other ways to be productive and contribute to society after creativity slows down or goes away. Nonetheless, if he is correct that “This age-creativity relationship is a statistical association, the product of averages; … [and] The age-creativity curve—especially the decline—endures across cultures and throughout history, suggesting some deep underlying biological determinism probably related to brain plasticity”, it suggests that there is what I would call a creativity cliff.
If the creativity cliff is real, it suggests that giving more incentives to create late in life is unwise. As I argue in The Life and Death of Copyright, the idea that authors need copyright after death to provide for heirs is absurd and unsupported. When I presented the paper, many asked but what if I am old and want to leave something to my children, isn’t copyright an incentive? It may be an incentive, but it is not sound, in part because of the creativity cliff. In general, as Hal Varian has noted, very few works ever generate a steady income stream. That is true regardless of when one creates. Copyrighted works are part of winner-take-all markets and “Such markets end up fostering over-entry into the field because too many people believe they will be the one to sit at the top of the market when only a few or arguably one can do so.” As Emanuel points out, many of us hope to be outliers and “immortals” who have excellent quality of life and tremendous creativity late in life, but by definition that can’t be true. Thus those who say they need copyright as an incentive to write as they see death approaching labor under the illusion that they are the outliers. I laud the effort and probably will write until I die, but that is not a sound basis for policy.