One sign of women’s progress: A rise in the percentage of copyrights they receive

If copyrights are a measure of women's long-term rise in economic participation, trends show progress but still a ways to go. A recent study by the U.S. Copyrig...

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If copyrights are a measure of women’s long-term rise in economic participation, trends show progress but still a ways to go. A recent study by the U.S. Copyright Office shows that over a 40-year period, women’s share of registrations rose from 28%, to 38% in 2020. Joining the Federal Drive with Tom Temin with analysis, University of Minnesota business school professor Joel Waldfogel, and Copyright Office chief economist Brent Lutes.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Professor Waldfogel, good to have you on.

Joel Waldfogel: Nice to be here.

Tom Temin: And the Copyright Office Chief Economist Brent Lutes. Brent, good to have you back.

Brent Lutes: Hi Tom, great to be back.

Tom Temin: And let’s start with the genesis of this study. What was the purpose of it? And how did it come to be? I guess there was a collaboration here between academia and government, Joel?

Joel Waldfogel: Yes, so I spent the last year at the Copyright Office, but it was virtual because of COVID. But as the Kaminstein Scholar, what that means is that I was working on copyright issues, you know, taking time away from my academic appointment, although I was still in my academic appointment. But most of my research is on copyright. So it fit pretty well with what I do. In any event, the question before me was to update some earlier work examining what share of copyrights have been granted to women authors. Last time this was looked at was around 2012. And there had been progress between 1978, 2012. But what had happened in the ensuing eight years, that was my sort of first task. And the answer is that it continues to rise, it had gone from about 28% in 1978, up to over 38% by 2020. And it varies a lot across categories, but that just general growth reflects an increase in women’s activity in this area.

Tom Temin: And Brent, the summary of the study references a change in copyright law that happened in the late 1970s. And how does that figure into this?

Brent Lutes: So in a practical sense, the change of copyright law is the point at which we started collecting and retaining data in a digital form that allows us to do this sort of research.

Tom Temin: Got it. So you had the database available, therefore, that might not have existed before that, rather, you would have had to go through millions and millions of pieces of paper?

Brent Lutes: That’s exactly right.

Tom Temin: All right. And what can we make of this result, there is a substantial 10% statistically significant rise in the number of copyrights granted to women. But if you look at popular culture, and you look at entertainment, and book writing, and songwriting and all of this, it seems like women and men participate equally. So why the disparity do we think in the rate of issuance of copyrights?

Joel Waldfogel: Well, copyright covers a variety of different kinds of media. And it is different across different groups. So take the one called nondramatic literary works, but we know it as books. That one of the female share has surpassed 50% in the last few years. In other categories, for example, machine readable computer programs, it’s substantially less, although it has risen substantially, it’s risen, like by a factor of three over this period. In the copyright topics related to movies and music. It’s risen more slowly, and it’s on the order of a quarter to a third. But books, I think a big headline result here is that we’ve surpassed 50%, more than half the authors nondramatic literary works are women.

Tom Temin: All right, interesting. And Brent, what does the say then about the copyright process, if anything?

Brent Lutes: So I think it tells us that I think as you mentioned at the beginning, there’s still gender disparities that exist, they’re increasing. But I think it also gives us a good framework to understand why those disparities exist, and what are the factors that may propagate them or mitigate them, which I think is an important second step that we intend to look into in the future that will help us develop some very targeted and evidence-based policy.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Brent Lutes, He’s chief economist of the U.S. Copyright Office, and with Professor Joel Waldfogel, at the University of Minnesota, and the ability to create and get items that are available for copyright, of course, begins downstream of the copyright office itself, or maybe it’s upstream, but it’s not directly in the copyright office. Let’s put it that way. So that’s not anything the federal government can really control. What might some of the policy options be then to make sure that women do get their fair share?

Brent Lutes: Just to clarify one thing, that we may not directly control the creation of works, the underlying reason why copyrights exist is to incentivize the creation of works in the first place, Joel?

Joel Waldfogel: Oh, sure. So let me talk about another kind of headline results of a study. On the one hand, we show that the share of copyright registrations that are to female authors, and that’s growing and so forth. But it’s not absolutely necessary to register your copyright, it would be desirable in some sense to do so. So there’s a different question we asked in this study, which is how does the female share for example of registrations in books relate to the female share of activity in writing books? And same for other these categories? And one of the things that we find it’s a little bit I think, thought provoking for us is that basically the registration share lags the activity share based on occupation data by an average about 20%. So women seem to be very possibly less likely to register conditional on creating stuff. Now we say we have to patch that a little bit because the data on activity aren’t you know, airtight, but still there’s at least a suggestion that there may be some room to go to get more registration, even conditional on having done the work. I should finally mention, though, that that gap, that sort of shortfall has declined over time, it was like 25, 30%, 20 some years ago. Now it’s more like 10, 15%. So it’s shrinking. But there still is a gap that’s worthy of sort of exploration and policy could perhaps encourage registration conditional on having done the creation.

Tom Temin: Right, a parallel comes to mind with the Census Bureau, which has to make sure that every population group is counted. And so they have this elaborate and expensive and well developed program of outreach to very small relative communities, but many, many, many of them to make sure that everyone in those communities is counted. So it sounds like the Copyright Office then could develop outreach programs, maybe look at the application process itself in such a way as to garner more so that the activity share gets closer to the registration share, or vice versa. Brent?

Brent Lutes: I think you’re right there. And we do have substantial outreach, we’re always looking for ways to better target those efforts. And I think this gives us a good source of information and a good way to target those efforts. And to the extent that we can figure out exactly why those registrations are lagging, potentially come up with more targeted policy beyond outreach.

Tom Temin: Sure. And any particular forms that might take in mind yet, or you’re still evaluating?

Brent Lutes: Like I said, depends on figuring out why they lag, you know, if it’s a matter of not understanding the benefits of registering one’s copyright, for example, then I think outreach and education would be an appropriate policy for that. But again, I think, you know, as I previously mentioned, the second step of this research is figuring out the why I think Joel did a really good job of figuring out the what once we figure out the why that we can develop the appropriate policy solutions.

Tom Temin: And relative to say, a patent application where there’s this very elaborate process of verifying that it actually is patentable, you’ve got examiners looking for all the prior art, et cetera, et cetera, with a copyright, if you write a novel or you create a computer program, is there any adjudicative of process to ensure that it deserves a copyright? Or is it you apply, and you get it?

Brent Lutes: So it’s not quite an apply and receive setup, there are examiners who look through it and make sure that it meets the appropriate criteria. And you know, I’m not an examiner, and I don’t know the particulars of what they’re looking at, though my understanding is that it is perhaps less intensive than the patent examination process.

Tom Temin: But if I tried to copyright Moon River, it probably wouldn’t go through?

Brent Lutes: I doubt it would, because I assumed that the examiners would understand.

Tom Temin: Let me ask you this, we have now a good picture and a moving picture over time of women versus men applicants. And I imagine you don’t ask racial or other demographic makeup of those that are applying for copyrights. But is it possible to understand some of the other axes of ratios here, say racial or ethnic and so on, that are not asked?

Joel Waldfogel: I mean, we can study gender relatively easily because the names are on copyright. And names are very highly correlated with gender. So it’s really easy aggregate to say stuff about gender. Race is not there. And there are sort of fancy statistical ways to try to do it. But it’s I think it’s dicey and unclear. Geography is something that I think will be very study-able.

Tom Temin:
Therefore, there’s maybe the opportunity to match geographic against census data. And then perhaps you could have at least a way of extrapolating some potential racial disparities.

Brent Lutes: You’re right. We don’t have that data, currently. You know, we’re exploring ways to potentially get around that fact. But I think as Joel mentioned, some of those ways are a little bit dicey and not credible.

Tom Temin: Right. So you couldn’t get a statistically supportable picture. But you could get a picture that gives you an idea of where you might need to direct policy or outreach?

Brent Lutes: Yeah, and I think, you know, in some respects, we can get a statistically credible picture. But that picture would be limited, in many ways. So we kind of get perhaps a detailed, significant picture.

Tom Temin: Is it possible legally or under regulation to have a voluntary question for copyright applicants?

Brent Lutes: Let me be careful with that, because I’m not a lawyer. I don’t want to dispense any sort of legal advice. I’ll say that, you know, on the patent side, there’s actually a bill in front of Congress, right now trying to understand whether it’s appropriate and useful to have such a voluntary survey go with a patent application. And, you know, I think it’s worthwhile for the copyright system to also at least start thinking about that. And, you know, at the moment, we don’t have plans to ask that of Congress.

Tom Temin: OK. So in the meantime, then this study on female participation in copyrights will be something that the Copyright Office is looking at, and perhaps developing ways to get at and make more equality there?

Brent Lutes: Yeah. And I think we should think of this as not necessarily all of the answers but a very significant first step towards those answers.

Tom Temin: Brent Lutes is chief economist of the U.S. Copyright Office. Thanks so much for joining me.

Brent Lutes: Great to be here, Tom.

Tom Temin: And Joel Waldfogel is a business professor at the University of Minnesota behind that study. Thank you very much.

Joel Waldfogel: My pleasure. May I add one other thing that I think is also important to mention here?

Tom Temin: Sure.

Joel Waldfogel: In addition to doing this study, I think the Copyright Office has also made public for researchers all of these data from 1978 to 2020. This is a huge step forward in transparency and modernization, and it will allow outside researchers, inside researchers to potentially answer questions we haven’t figured out yet. So I’m pretty excited about that. I think it’s a great accomplishment for the office.

Brent Lutes: It’s the largest it’s most complete data set of copyright ever released anywhere.

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