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  • November 8, 2021

Increasing access to knowledge

Relaxing copyright protections led to increased research citations.


Copyright law is intended to spur creativity by ensuring that innovators are compensated for their work. But these protections can hinder overall creative output if they prevent other scientists and artists from accessing and building upon important ideas.

In a paper in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, authors Barbara Biasi and Petra Moser investigate how the relaxed copyright protections of a 1942 initiative called the Book Republication Program (BRP) led to a significant increase in scientific advancements.

The program allowed US publishers to reprint copies of enemy-owned science books during World War II, leading to a 25 percent drop in the average price for German-owned publications. This made it easier for American scientists to access that knowledge for their own research.

To explore the effects of weaker copyrights on science, the authors use citations to BRP books as a measure of the knowledge building on these books. The authors compared changes in citations to the same BRP book by English-language authors with citations of other-language authors. Given that the BRP was a US policy, English-language authors were more likely to benefit from it.   As a control group, the authors used English-language citations to Swiss-owned copyrights. Due to Switzerland's neutrality in the war, Swiss-owned copyrights were not available for the BRP.




Figure 4 from Biasi and Moser (2021)

Figure 4 from their paper combines those two strategies into a triple differences model that compares the differential change in citations to BRP books from English-language and other-language authors with the same change for Swiss books. The solid black line shows the effects before and after the program began (indicated by the vertical dotted line). The shaded areas are 95 percent confidence intervals. 

The authors estimate that BRP books received an additional 0.202 English-language citations per year after the initiative compared with Swiss books and compared with citations by non-English language authors. This was a 67 percent increase in citations after the program went into effect. 

The authors also found that the expanded access to copyrighted research boosted academic careers. The number of new PhDs increased more in geographic areas with closer access to BRP books compared with regions that were further away.

The findings highlight how the costs of accessing research can impact overall scientific innovation. 

“Effects of Copyrights on Science: Evidence from the WWII Book Republication Program” appears in the November issue of the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics.