Can we talk about reasonable copyrights?

Now, I’m all for author rights — I’m an author myself — but my personal take is that folks like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer would make out just fine even if their rights to their respective works were limited to just, say, the first 40 years after publication [2037 for Potter, 2045 for Twilight] — not only is that a great run for any book, any directly licensed derivative works [AKA movies, TV; AKA *ka-CHING*] will have all been out on DVD, Blu-ray, DataCrystal, Holochip, and direct neural memory download by that point, and if anyone still gives a rats-ass about sparkly vampires in 2045, then the works themselves are likely significant enough that they deserve academic notice and as such should reside in the public domain — and by extension, should also be fodder for popular re-mixing.

But That’s Me. And say you’ve spent decades building a fictional universe through dozens of books, and all of a sudden the characters and locations of the first book are now ‘public domain’, because the copyright laws of 1909 [since superceeded by the 1976 law, and extended again in 1998, but go with me on this] say you only get 56 years (a term of 28 years, renewable once) — not only did you get 56 years from which to profit from a work, which for most of us will be our entire working career from college graduation until retirement or death – but you are also the Author/Creator of a work so profound that your fans and readers are so invested they want to write their own stories and adventures set in the world you created.

A work you created 56 years ago. And if there is money to be made from the public domain stuff six decades on, how much do you think you can make selling Officially Licensed Sequels, to say nothing of New Books “By The Original Creator”?

And if you’re dead, well, I don’t think you should care at all. Your great-great-grand-niece is a nice person, I’m sure, but I also personally strongly feel that creator rights should not be inheritable. Set up a company to sell the ‘official’ crap, let your descendants run that onto the seventh and eighth generations [and into the ground] but any work of Art or Culture really should belong to us all.


Image by Eric J. Heels, originally posted to, “Drawing That Explains Copyright Law” – reproduced here under Creative Commons

Disney built what is now (by some measures) the largest media company EVER — one that currently earns $38 Billion a year — largely on adaptations of 18th century folk tales already in the public domain.

That’s fine too — I won’t fault Diz for doing business, and adding to the many complex versions of those stories, and to the collective corpus and canon of human arts. It takes work to bring a story like that to the screen, and in ways that apparently millions [the majority of us?] enjoy. Praise of the creative output of the company kind of sticks in my throat, though, when I consider all their business practices (including but not limited to the incessant marketing to kids who should be too young to be consumers quite honestly) and of course, their unremitting assault on the Public Domain. [please reference the major legacy of Rep. Sono Bono, a law which guarantees any work produced in my lifetime will never enter the public domain, or at least not until I am very dead, very very cold, and long long forgotten]

The goal of current copyright law and corporate efforts is basically to keep another Disney from ever developing. Also, there are a number of movements afoot to use a mix of regulations, law, law enforcement, and international treaties to keep anything like YouTube or iTunes [or Facebook, or Twitter, or many aspects of Google not including YouTube] from ever rising up again. These things disrupt the status quo, and as such obviously should be illegal — from the corporate point of view. Business is more important than piffling things like freedom, expression, or shared culture. [ref. not only the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998, DMCA, ACTA, and likely something else in the works that’s even worse and very, very secret]

This is great for corporations, and for the heirs of dead authors. The rest of us don’t usually think about copyright, as there is a hell of a lot of media out there (more than one person could consume in a single lifetime) and so we don’t necessarily feel the lack.

For the vast majority of authors, the risk is not somehow being cheated of earnings decades after publication, but in being lost (lost in a vast sea of what’s available) or cheated out of legitimate earnings from the onset by some big company. In the case of ‘work for hire’ the 1998 Act extends copyright for up to 120 years from date of creation. Somehow, corporations get (at a minimum) an extra 25 years — 25 at a minimum if they screw over the original creator of any work and can claim ‘corporate authorship’. That is to say, I get 70 years, as an individual, but Disney gets 95 years from date of publication (or 120 years from date of creation, whichever is less — so there is no penalty if a corporation dusts off even a 25 year old property to publish today; all rights still reserved and they get the full term)

If you want to write great fiction, skip novels and write copyright laws. This stuff is high fantasy.

reposted with permission from Rocket Bomber

5 Comments on Can we talk about reasonable copyrights?

  1. Remembering “copyright” is “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. not a welfare system: [promote, promote, promote and limited times, limited limited limited to authors and inventors]

    1) 20 years for creator or lifetime, which ever is less. Creator is a person or persons, not a company [company is 10 years]. If persons, lifetime is first to die.

    2) If copyright is sold/assigned, 10 years from date sold/assigned but never beyond that if 1) above.

    3) all forms have right of resale (if digital, seller must erase their copy).

  2. This is such a complex relationship.
    Authors spend chunks of their lives getting a book ready for publication and would like reasonable return on that effort.
    Readers want some realistic control over their use of what they purchase.
    When it boils down to it, if you want to make money off someone’s work, they should be paid for their contribution.


  3. Nate, you are 101% right on this – I think copyrights should not in any circumstance exceed either the life of the author or 50 years, whichever comes last.

    Perry: no question, authors fully deserve a reasonable return on their effort. While they are alive and able to enjoy the returns. After the author’s death, or after a _reasonable_ number of years from date of first publication, I think the public interest trumps the author’s residual interest.

    The repeated extensions to copyright law have been pushed by corporate interests – Hollywood in particular – and I think those extensions have been unreasonable. In effect, pretty much every movie produced since the introduction of sound, is still under copyright, and an almost infinitesimal percentage is available to you and me.

  4. but my personal take is that folks like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer would make out just fine even if their rights to their respective works were limited to just, say, the first 40 years after publication

    Maybe you would feel different about this if you were them?

  5. Great points. The current copyright law only protects multi-national corporate interests, it hamstrings artists and creators, stymies cultural innovation and all but prohibits educational progress. There’s a great video on it made entirely of Disney clips, to make the point:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.