Copyright. You either love it or hate it – however you react to that word, you’ll probably have some kind of reaction.
It’s been said much more articulately by a lot of people (such as in this excellent comic by Keith Aoki et al, which you should really read ), but copyright is everywhere.
Virtually every part of our culture is copyrighted by someone or other – I mean, we’re so used to those stupid melodramatic copyright warnings on DVDs (which we’ve legally bought) that we just mentally block them out whenever we see them.
Almost all of our modern fictional folk-heroes are copyrighted or trademarked in some way or another (eg: Captain Picard, James Bond etc…). Not to mention that, every once in a while, there will be editorials in the paper by some rich celebrity or other sternly lecturing and guilt-tripping us about the value of copyright.
If you’ve ever seen one of your favourite Youtube videos taken down “Due to a copyright claim by [a faceless corporation]” or even if you want to watch something on Hulu, but can’t because it’s only available in America, then you’ll probably know about copyright.
Like oxygen, copyright is everywhere.
But, saying this, I don’t hate copyright. Copyright exists for a reason.
It’s just that, over the past few decades, this reason seems to have been distorted beyond recognition.
Whilst I’m certainly not the first person to argue in favour of shorter copyright terms, I’ll set out the main arguments for why copyright terms should be reduced to something far more reasonable and sensible.
In principle, copyright is a good thing. It ensures that the person who created something can profit exclusively from it for a limited period of time and it stops uncreative people from cashing in on the work of creative people. This is good.
But this isn’t what copyright is these days – these days, there are plenty of uncreative people cashing in on the work of creative people.
When you buy a DVD or a record – how much of that money (after VAT or sales tax) goes to the musician, director, actors etc….? If the answer is anything less than, say, sixty or seventy percent – then you can guarantee that someone uncreative is profiting very handsomely from it. I thought that copyright was supposed to prevent this kind of thing!
Not only that, the first copyright law in the United Kingdom ( the Statute Of Anne from 1710 ) allowed a maximum copyright term of twenty-eight years, provided that the copyright was renewed after fourteen years. That sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it? Especially if it was revised down to twenty for the sake of simplicity (or, if we’re being practical – even the life of the creator plus twenty years would still be an improvement). After all, if you write something good which people want to read, you can sell a lot of books in a couple of decades.
These days, it’s the creator’s entire life plus seventy years! Yes, that’s right – people still theoretically have total control over their work and the rights to royalties from it for seven decades after they have died!
In reality, we know that the people who actually get those royalties are the creator’s family and, more often, their publishers. Yes, I understand the argument that copyrights and royalties are a form of inheritance. But, in their current form, I don’t think that they’re really a fair form of inheritance.
Being bequeathed all of the profits that were made from a book or record whilst it’s creator was alive is a fair inheritance (like being bequeathed any other sum of money which someone owned when they were alive).
Hell, even being given the profits from something for, say, twenty years after it’s creator has died – is a fair inheritance. But keeping total control of part of our shared culture and popular imagination for two to three generations just seems a little bit excessive to me.
Then there’s the argument that copyright promotes innovation. This is technically true, since you can’t just copy someone else’s work wholesale and call it your own if there are copyright laws. You have to invent something new. Yes, copyright promotes innovation.
But, have you ever noticed that when something popular gets copied by everyone (with just enough changes to make it original), it quickly turns into a cliche? Everyone quickly gets bored of it and yearns for something original again – people who keep creating just-about-legal derivative works lose out because everyone’s already seen, heard or read it a thousand times before and isn’t interested any more. So, eventually, people will innovate anyway regardless of whether copyright exists or not.
Not only that, if copyright terms were a lot shorter (eg: twenty years after publication), this would force the authors and musicians to innovate. After all, they can’t coast through life from the profits of one thing they’ve produced a few decades ago. In other words, they’ll have to produce something new at least every two decades. That sounds like innovation to me….
This brings me on to the argument about royalties being a good source of retirement money (which is probably why the copyright terms on musical recordings were recently extended in Europe – after all, we can’t have extremely rich rock stars from the 1960s losing out on a single penny in their old age).
I understand this argument but, if a work is successful, then having twenty years’ worth of profits to retire on would still be a pretty good prospect. And, if a work hasn’t been successful, then it probably unfortunately isn’t going to sell that well (or even be remembered) more than twenty years later anyway.
Finally, and most importantly, every published creative work becomes part of the popular imagination and our culture to some level or another. Things that are still well-remembered after twenty years become a large part of our culture and imaginations in general, yet they are still privately-owned.
We can’t re-tell our favourite modern “folk tales” without getting permission and paying royalties and we can’t sing well-known modern “ballads” without technically having to pay royalties either (including, scarily, “Happy Birthday“).
Call me old-fashioned, but I think that they had the right idea in 1710 when it comes to the whole subject of copyright.