Oh no you didn't

My brother-in-law sent me the link to a May 20th Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Mark Helprin entitled "A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn't its Copyright?". I think Ed only sent it so he could stand back and watch my brain explode, the same way a kid might light an illegal firework imported from Mexico.

(Note: Prepare yourself for a rant. This is what I wrote my dissertation on, so I'm slightly impassioned.)

Helprin is whining because he wants the copyright term to be extended, again, some more. He thinks that if he were to write the Great American Novel (which I hope he never does, because I'm pretty sure I would hate that book), then only holding the rights to that novel for the rest of his life + 70 additional years (the current copyright term in the USA) is just not even enough. Because what if his poor great-grandson can't buy a boat for his 13th birthday once all those nasty public domain people rob his posterity blind?

My answer to that, of course, would be to tell the g-grandson to write his OWN Great American Novel and stop this About a Boy nonsense. Also to get a job. And tuck in his shirt. And comb his freaking hair for gosh sakes.

The original copyright term set up in this country was 14 years. The Founding Fathers understood that no one can own an idea. But since it does take work to develop ideas and put them into accessible formats and publish them, the copyright term was established. It was meant to provide incentive & compensation for creators to share their ideas, with the understanding that their ideas (and the form in which they shared them with the world) would eventually be made part of the public domain and others could then build upon them. That way everyone wins. And if creators & authors didn't want to share, then that was just fine--they could just Keep It To Themselves and Never Tell Anyone Their Fabulous Great Idea. And they could stay home and pet their idea alone in their room and murmur “My Precious” to it.

Helprin is trying to say that a novel or song or play should be treated the same way as a house or boat and should stay within the original builder's possession forever and ever, worlds without end. But songs and novels and plays aren't like houses or boats. They're not created for the private use of just one family. They don't really begin to exist as great works until they're sent out into the world to be seen and read and studied and appreciated. You can't take away a creative work from someone by using it.

And anyway, the big power behind the push for extended and ridiculously strong copyright is not coming from the descendants of dead writers of the Great American Novel. It’s coming from corporations like Disney who don't want to lose control of their characters—characters which, for the most part, existed in the public domain before Disney adapted them. So on that thought, here is a brilliant, brilliant video about copyright, fair use, and Disney. Don’t be put off by the length, because the last minute is mostly credits.

ps. Since writing the above, I discovered that Mr. Lawrence Lessig His Own Self has responded to Helprin's article in the form of a wiki ("Against Perpetual Copyright") so that other people can contribute their comments, which, seriously? Is awesome. Glad Lawrence and I are on the same page here. ;-)


blackjazz said... [reply]

I'll try again without any typos...

If the law were passed, would the descendants of the Brothers Grimm be able to sue Disney?

kristen said... [reply]

As a teacher I hate copyright. Doh--can't make copies--have to buy a class set! Garbage. I only purchase items for which I can make multiple copies.

Nemesis said... [reply]

Blackjazz, that's an excellent question. But I think the answer is no because the Brothers Grimm stories were already in the public domain. I don't think they can get yanked back under protective status. It would just apply (I think) to works that are currently covered and would prevent them from entering the public domain.

Would serve Disney right, though.

ed said... [reply]

I confess I love copyright. As a photographer my business would not survive without it. I rely on taking a picture and licensing that image over and over again.

That said I do not think the 70 year term should be extended. Can you imagine not being able to download most of Ansel Adams full res tif files from the national archive?

Personally I'm waiting around for the stuff he shot in the 50's and 60's. Soon enough, soon enough.

Nemesis said... [reply]

I'm not against copyright, Ed. I just think the whole system is getting out of control and that there's no need for it to be extended. (Like you say, there are a lot of great things out there that everyone could benefit from.)

Scully said... [reply]

Seriously, lifetime plus seventy years seems plenty. That is basically two lifetimes. Plus, it is ridiculously rare for an author's work to be cared about after that amount of time. Austen, Dickens, et al are the exception that proves the rule. I doubt this man's works would last the test of time. Especially where writing is concerned. It isn't like the current law allows people to copy your novel, affix their name to it, and republish. Hello?

Jenny said... [reply]

I think lifetime is plenty. Who cares about some artist's stupid relatives? They didn't think up the idea and we all know how much trust fund kids suck.

Th. said... [reply]


Lifetime may even be too much, and I say that as an owner of copyrights. In this corporation-owned world though, I wouldn't mind going back to a renewable 14 though---at least for them.

Of course, first we need a Congress not corporation-owned itself.

Jimmy said... [reply]

I just get the idea that if some work of art were to still be on the radar after the current terms of copyright, it might actually really be great, and once things that great fall into the public domain, they are available to a great many more people to appreciate. I think that's the destiny of any great work, to be read and appreciated by as many people as possible.

I just think the status quo is fine, and any attempts to alter it just reflects the greedy mentality of the "Me" generation.

redlaw said... [reply]

i wholeheartedly agree with this post. copyright law has been stretched as far as it ought to - you are dead-on about what the founding fathers felt - i used to work at a patent/copyright law firm and it was frustrating to realize that some 70 years after someone dies, their idea is still protected.
also, just as a side note, even real property, like houses (and, to a lesser extent, horses) has limitations on how long it can stay in one person's hands or in the lineage of one person. it can be done, this passing of an estate from one to his heirs, but you have to be careful in how you do it. and it's been like that since property law was developed back in the dark ages and whenever.
so even real property has limits on its possession. thus, why allow copyright to drag on?

Ahnteis said... [reply]

It's worse. Most music is produced as a "work for hire". That means that the copyright is owned by a corporation -- so lifetime + X years may very well mean forever.

The whole idea of copyright would be completely foreign to most early artists, composers, and writers. (There are many interesting quotes on the subject for interested parties.) Ideas cannot be owned. The very concept of "intellectual property" is a very new one.

However, in order to PROMOTE creative works, and to allow artists (of all types) to make a living from their ideas, a TEMPORARY monopoly on distribution (copyright) was granted.

And then Disney dumped some money on some politicians and look where we are today. It's a disgrace.

On a side note, patent law is nearly as messed up. The infamous "one-click Amazon patent" is an example. However, patent law is currently under review for a major overhaul.

Write your congressmen/senators and tell them that copyright law is out of control.

Azúcar said... [reply]

Sing it sister!

Th. said... [reply]


I should have looked harder and just put that link here.

Ah well.

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