Monthly Archives: May 2012

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What’s in a Name? The Value of That Which We Call Attribution

Christopher Jon Sprigman, Christopher Buccafusco, & Zachary Burns, Valuing Attribution and Publication in Intellectual Property (Va L. & Econ. Rev Research Paper No. 2012-02), available at SSRN.

We all like to get credit where credit is due, but how much is it really worth to us? In another installment of their provocative series of IP experiments, Sprigman and Buccafusco team up with Burns to test that question specifically in the context of online photography.

The setup is similar to their past papers – subjects are given the opportunity to sell their chance at winning a prize in a creativity contest. The amount they are willing to sell for stands as a proxy for how much they think their IP might be worth. In the past, these experiments demonstrated a tendency for those who owned IP to fall prey to an “endowment effect” and those who created the IP to a “creativity effect,” both of which artificially inflated subjects’ perceptions of the IP’s value, thus leading to market inefficiencies and higher transaction costs. Sprigman and Buccafusco then argued that this differential supports the use of liability rules over property rules for IP, as liability rules tend to mitigate the costs incurred from such irrational holdouts.

In this paper, the focus is on two experiments investigating how creators value attribution and publication, and how those valuations might affect IP market transactions and policies.  Subjects in the first experiment were casual amateur photographers who submitted nature photos into a contest to win $1000 dollars. They are then randomly given one of three conditions: (1) an offer to buy their right to win the contest; (2) the same offer with an additional opportunity to have their photo published without attribution if the parties are able to reach a deal and the photo also wins the contest; and (3) the same offer but with publication and attribution if the parties are able to reach a deal and the photo wins.

Not surprisingly, the study found that subjects were willing to accept much less money for the possibility of having their photo published with attribution, thus showing the value of the attribution. This was reinforced by the finding that publication without attribution was even less valuable than winning the contest, meaning that many photographers might even forego publication if attribution was unavailable.

The second experiment focused on differentials that might exist between professional and amateur photographers. The contest conditions were the same, but the subject population was more professional than amateur. Here, the response to the attribution condition was even stronger, with professional photographers valuing attribution even more than casual amateurs.

The implications of the paper are quite interesting and timely. With the rise of more and more social economies and reputational systems online, norms for appropriate attribution are becoming a flashpoint. For example, the social image curation site Pinterest recently experienced blowback over its “Pin Etiquette” and Terms of Use which both discouraged self-promotion and posting third-party content without permission (leaving one to wonder what, exactly, users should “pin” to their boards). At the heart of the conflict was copyright and in particular, norms around who gets the credit for producing and “pinning” works of art.

The authors provide a useful framework for helping us understand their data and, by analogy, conflicts such as the Pinterest one by breaking attribution down into three types of value – extrinsic value (promoting additional commercial success), intrinsic value (positive emotional experiences), and moral value (the proper treatment of art and artists). In the Pinterest conflict, complaints ranged along all three lines. Unfortunately, as the authors admit, they were unable to distinguish in their experiments between these different types, so it is unknown which and to what extent each drove the behavior of the photographers they studied.

Still, one wonders if artists were given a choice, which of the three types of value they would prioritize in a given situation. Identifying the appropriate value could allow both online platforms and policy makers to craft appropriate tools to respond to attribution failures. For instance, YouTube’s ContentID provides rightholders with options to monetize, attach attribution, or removal content posted by third parties without permission. While the removal option reinforces the property rights approach that the authors criticize, the attribution and monetization seem to be rational approaches by YouTube to the attribution needs of creators.

So what are we to take from all this? In the end, the paper is less about new information on attribution and more about the accuracy of our intuitions. Attribution is clearly important to artists and to the extent it has become normatively dominant online, it can help mitigate any potential loss of economic value that artist and other creators might feel (however irrationally) when they find their work posted without payment. Thus, it continues to be a smart strategy for those who post, pin, or publish images without permission. However, I agree with the authors that this does not mean we should adopt mandatory attribution or any other form of property-like reputational right as a matter of policy. As their data shows, this would only lead to greater presumptions of irrational economic value and the ability to control content – two concepts which are increasingly problematic in networked economies.